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Ref Watch: Could a Paris World Cup final featuring France be refereed entirely in English?

By Paul Smith
France's acting captain Gael Fickou talks to referee Angus Gardner during the Six Nations match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

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Angus Gardner has made his way into the upper echelons of World Rugby’s refereeing squad and based on his superb display in this high-octane encounter he could well feature prominently in the latter stages of France 2023.

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The 37-year-old Australian has picked up plenty of test match experience over the last decade including appearances as a touch judge in England 2015 and as a pool stage referee in Japan 2019.

His calm manner and strong communication skills really stand out and it is a mark of the esteem in which he is held that he was entrusted with this potential Six Nations decider ahead of the likes of Wayne Barnes, Luke Pearce and Jaco Peyper.

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Zebo on France v Ireland
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Zebo on France v Ireland

When Gardner reviews his performance he will find plenty to like, among which the relatively low penalty count (7-10 in France’s favour) and absence of controversy created a match in which the players determined the outcome, which is what every official seeks.

The Big Moment
With France leading 27-24 and three minutes remaining, Ireland were hanging on when Melvyn Jaminet seemed to have scored a match clinching try.

In real time Gardner deemed it held up by a last-ditch tackle from Dan Sheehan and was extremely clear in his instruction to TMO Ben Whitehouse that he had to find conclusive evidence with which to change this call.

This should go without saying, as it is a basic part of the TMO protocol, but not only did Gardner’s instruction remind the man in the van of what was required, but it also provided a useful clarification for the millions watching on TV.

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As Brian O’Driscoll observed afterwards, a try was probably scored, since one hand is rarely able to prevent an entire rugby ball from touching the ground in this sort of situation.

However, there was no conclusive proof available to make probability fact and as a result – having also ascertained that there was no earlier knock-on – Gardner took play back for a French penalty from a previous phase.

Parlez Vous Francais?
The biggest negative in Gardner’s accomplished display was the total absence of any attempt to converse in anything other than English.

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While most of the French players seemed to understand him, this approach surely has to put les Bleus (and any other nation for whom English is not their native tongue) at an immediate and unfair disadvantage.

English official Pearce is the refereeing world’s rising star, and the hard work which has evidently gone into his language skills is certainly not doing his prospects any harm.

Could a World Cup final played in Paris featuring France be controlled by a man speaking entirely in English? A hypothetical question but…

Use of the TMO
I especially liked that Gardner was clearly in control and Whitehouse was seen to be there in a supporting capacity.

To the Welshman’s credit he struck just the right note here, checking queries quickly and efficiently behind the scenes and as a result not unnecessarily interrupting the flow of an absorbing test match.

Tries from Josh van der Flier and Cyril Baille were both quietly confirmed in the background prior to the conversion being taken, but in both instances without the need for any artificial pause.

In addition, without breaking stride, early in the match Gardner simply asked his man in the van in a quizzical tone: ‘deliberate?’ to ensure he made the right call about a Gael Fickou knock-on.

The answer to ‘who is running the show’ was never clearer than during the incident which saw the TMO’s other main involvement – to analyse Tadgh Beirne’s possible obstruction on Antoine Dupont as the French no.9 pursued his own kick.

Touch judge Craig Evans suggested that Gardner should take a second look at the incident since it was worthy of a penalty, a view, which Miles Harrison observed in commentary, was clearly shared by Ben O’Keefe on the other touchline.

Whitehouse duly provided all the angles before – with a totally calm and analytical approach – Gardner left his three colleagues in no doubt about what was happening next when he advised: “There was no change of line from the green player so there is no foul play.”

Management
Small things really matter in matches of this intensity, especially when they are played in such a febrile atmosphere.

So, despite the cacophony of whistles and boos, the early whistle and penalty award when Andrew Conway took Jaminet in the air ensured there was no emotional reaction from an obviously extremely wound-up French side.

But neither did Gardner err too far on the side of caution, as shown when he was happy to allow a slightly high tackle on Jaminet to go unpunished.

In summary this was a fine display which surely positions him ahead of countryman Nic Berry (who joined Kiwi O’Keefe and France’s Mathieu Raynal in being given a Lions test last summer) when World Rugby next assesses the pecking order of their elite group.

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