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Ref Watch: And then there were three

By Paul Smith
New Zealand referee Ben O'Keeffe looks on during the France 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Ireland at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, on September 23, 2023. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

And then there were three… Ben O’Keeffe threw his hat into the World Cup final ring with a brilliantly calm display of refereeing during a test match of breathtaking brutality between Ireland and South Africa.


While England’s Wayne Barnes or South Africa’s Jaco Peyper remain the likeliest candidates to accompany the finalists at the Stade de France next month, the 34-year-old Kiwi has given World Rugby’s selection panel a third, younger contender that merits serious consideration.

It feels like we waited an eternity for this pool stage clash between the top two sides in the world to arrive and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

But what this World Cup also needed was a controversy-free test match featuring no cards, no head contact and no TMO interventions and it is much to the credit of both sets of players and coaches as well as O’Keeffe and his team of officials that we got exactly that.

Brutal but Smart
This level of physicality in the contact area, scrum and especially in the tackle is something that really concentrates the referee’s mind since you feel like you need eyes everywhere.

Not only must you ensure that the hits themselves are legal but also such colossal impacts can very easily lead to flashpoints when a marginally mis-timed contact leads to reprisals either immediately or at a later point in the match.

One of the many reasons that these two sides are so good is that they channel their physicality without losing focus or discipline. As a referee this allows you a split second longer to allow play to develop since you are not in the back of your mind concerned about what happens next if you don’t instantly hit the whistle.

Sexton Ben O'Keeffe
Johnny Sexton – PA

A great example of this came when Ireland stopped Eben Etzebeth in his tracks with a huge second- half tackle and as a maul quickly developed the Springbok lock was left suspended in mid air in the middle of the action.

O’Keeffe quickly spotted the danger and called: “Keep him safe” and Ireland duly ensured he returned safely to ground on both feet once the subsequent unplayable call gave them a scrum feed. Very smart.

When Ireland lost their first four throws alarm bells will have been ringing in O’Keeffe’s head as he questioned what he was missing.


However, besides a small amount of gap-closing from both sides there were no across-the-line offences and the turnovers were largely down to mis-timing between Ireland’s hooker, jumpers and lifters.

I am advised that the communications system linking the referee with the touch judges, TMO, bunker team and pitchside officials buzzes with information. In much the same way that a live TV news broadcaster continually has the production team in his/her ear it appears a 2023 World Cup referee has similar levels of assistance.

lineout o'keeffe
James Ryan takes the ball at an Irish lineout – PA

Presumably therefore O’Keeffe had someone putting his mind at ease in this area as Ireland’s lineout struggles grew – although the absence of Irish forwards in his ear doubtless sent the same reassuring message…

As befitted a test match in which a huge physical contest dominated there were around 25 per cent more scrums – 16 in total – than has been the case in most of the World Cup games to date.

It was interesting to note that O’Keeffe awarded a free kick against the eventual victors in the first scrum for an early engagement then correctly upgraded this to a penalty when they repeated the offence in the third scrum.

Fast forward more than an hour and scrums 15 and 16 saw the replacement South African front row twice commit the same offence and O’Keeffe responded in the same manner – except this time the penalty resulted in three crucial points.

The whole consistency debate in refereeing is a long and complex one and as officials it is our biggest challenge. It was therefore great to see such a clear display of setting scrum standards and sticking to them from minute one to 80.


Similarly, we were well into the second half before the match’s eleventh scrum became the first one to be reset. On occasions with the ball at the no.8’s feet O’Keeffe instructed ‘use it’ despite both front rows being on the ground, but following a blame-free ‘melt down’ rather than deliberate collapse this kept the match moving and seemed a sensible approach.

The Last Play
It says plenty about how well O’Keeffe and his team controlled this potential final rehearsal that social media has only been mildly critical – given the nature of Twitter (sorry Elon I have ‘X’ in the same unusable bracket as ‘referee’s assistant’) that should be viewed as a positive triumph!

Where there has been some debate is around his decision to blow for full time when it appeared South Africa were about to recycle possession from a failed maul around eight metres from the Ireland line.

What needs to be understood here is that the parameters can’t change just because the clock has gone red at the end of the match.


There were only a handful of turnovers due to ‘unplayables’ during the rest of the contest, but on each occasion that these turnovers happened once the situation became static O’Keeffe allowed the same short period before blowing up.

To the naked eye his approach to this lineout maul appeared no different to – say – the maul referenced earlier when Etzebeth was held off the ground. Although the ball did eventually pop out this for me happened a split second after the maul stopped moving and the whistle had gone.

Forward Pass?
I hate to keep returning to this subject but in my humble opinion rugby union has got itself in a colossal muddle by factoring momentum of travel and direction of the hands into forward pass calls.

Until this interpretation arrived, the long pass with which Manie Libbok sent Cheslin Kolbe to the line would definitely have been called back because it ended up four metres in front of the point from which it was launched.

To my 94-year-old father and anyone other casual sports fan who stumbled upon tonight’s terrestrial TV coverage with only a rudimentary grasp of the laws of rugby this must be baffling, but we are now at a point where to seasoned rugby watchers it doesn’t even merit a raised eyebrow.

Spider cam patrols the skies in Paris – PA

For those of us who are part of the campaign for plain English – whereby a pass which goes towards the opponent’s line is termed a forward pass and one that goes backwards isn’t – I can however reveal there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Although this will not be officially acknowledged, I am reliably informed that the leading French officials in charge of Top-14 and Pro D2 – where TV replays are available – have been instructed to go back to the future.

In France a pass which started one side of the five-metre line and finished four metres the other side of it is no more deemed to have defied the laws of physics and gone backwards while travelling forwards.


Shot Clock
World Rugby have taken something of a hammering at times in recent months, but their introduction of the shot clock is an absolute stroke of genius.

Not only does it speed up the game but it is also compelling viewing. As Libbok lined up his last kick at goal and the contest hung by a thread the clock got into the final five seconds and Irish eyes around the world were doubtless willing it to speed up…

Similarly creative solutions to feeding at the scrum and hookers throwing in from inside the touchline please…

In Goal
The laws surrounding ‘in goal’ are those which many find hardest to follow and referee especially since the introduction of the goal-line drop-out.

O’Keeffe twice tonight had to think quickly when posed on-the-hoof quiz questions – answers at the foot of the column…

1.       When the outstanding James Lowe ripped the ball from Damian de Allende in a contact situation and backwards into his own in-goal area where it was touched down by Jamison Gibson-Park what happened next?

2.       When Jack Crowley’s late drop goal attempt was deflected off South African fingertips behind the Springbok dead ball line where does play restart?

Everything that’s great about rugby

There are plenty of commentators, ex-players and coaches who can tell you much more than I am able about how well both sides performed under the most testing of circumstances in this fabulous match.

What they may not mention is just how exemplary their behaviour was towards the officials.


Even with the match on the line, when Bundee Aki was pinged on his own line for having his hands on the ground beyond the ball while attempting a jackal he simply apologised to his teammates.

Similarly, when RG Snyman was offside at a maul he held up both hands to acknowledge his error.

When the camera picked up Cheslin Kolbe in deep conversation with touch judge James Doleman it was clearly all about understanding what the officials wanted and conveying this information to his backline colleagues. As the Springbok no.11 turned away he raised a hand politely and said “thank you.”

What a fabulous example to set.

In Goal Answers
1.       Ireland put the ball in goal therefore South Africa feed a five-metre scrum restart.
2.       South Africa played the ball last before it went dead so Ireland feed a five-metre scrum.


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Jmann 291 days ago

Ben has become the premium referee at the RWC2023. His feel for the game is exceptional. It was immediately apparent at scrum and ruck time how far ahead of his peers that he is. Kudos for keeping the game rolling and ignoring the fatties trying to continually take breaks.

Ruby 291 days ago

Angus Gardner is my favourite, he lets the game flow, he communicates well, he gives feedback, he takes feedback, compared to other refs who will be told something, realise that they got the call wildly wrong but stick to it or not adjust their approach.

Red and White Dynamight 292 days ago

O'Keeffe head and shoulders above the rest, clearly. Throwing Peyper in there is surely a joke ?!

JB 292 days ago

Probably better to know what the laws of physics are before implying momentum has nothing to do with them.

BigMaul 292 days ago

Pet peeve sin for me: Several not straight lineouts not called in the first half. Then he gives the last one, which was pivotal and no less straight than the others. Potentially decided the result, so a huge decision. Blotted the copy book. That was the only major mistake. But quite a few breakdown decisions were questionable. A different ref and SA win that game, which is basically the problem with the sport right now.

Jaco 292 days ago

Great article Paul.
What a brutal match, yet no cards and no glaring refereeing mistakes. Hats off to coaches, players and officials on both sides.
And we`re still not sure who the best team is! SAf should have bagged this one.

P. 292 days ago

Two more things to address for me: Straight put ins at the scrum, straight down the tunnel as it always used to be.
Straight throws only at lineouts.

Mat 292 days ago

Are you seriously suggesting that momentum should not be considered when judging for forward passes??
So when a center is running full speed and pass to his winger running full speed clearly just behind him but 5m out, it should be called for a forward pass?? (the ball will move forward in reference to the field)

Geoffrey 292 days ago

Certainly not the worst. And I’m a countryman. But I don’t like the calling of players by first name. Nor the willingness to engage in conversations with the players other than the captains. It’s all potentially about being liked by the players and that’s a risk when a match may be decided by a 50:50 call. Skilful players will be all over that.

Snash 292 days ago

Yep couldn't really fault him.

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