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Ref Watch: England dodged a high penalty count bullet

By Paul Smith

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Social media has heaped criticism on referee Andy Brace following England’s narrow win over South Africa, but having watched the match back this is mostly undeserved since he got a lot more right than he got wrong.

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Every hard-fought match has critical moments and tight calls and this was no different, but I suspect when the Irish whistler has another look at the game only his management of England’s high penalty count will seriously trouble him.

Pens against England (by quarter) 1, 6, 7, 4 = 18
Pens against SA (by quarter) 2, 2, 0, 4 = 8

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Eddie Jones and Courtney Lawes
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Eddie Jones and Courtney Lawes

Scrum
I really liked the way Brace set his stall out from the outset with the front rows.

He took an age to set the first scrum – the oldest management trick in the book when the players have steam coming out of their ears – and insisted on it being set at a good height and with clear space visible between the packs at the ‘bind’ call.

By correctly penalising South Africa (via touch judge assistance) at the second scrum for tight head Trevor Nyakane causing the scrum to collapse by “overstretching” Brace put down a marker in an area where a huge contest-within-a- contest was anticipated.

Remarkably the match contained only seven scrums in total, one of which delivered clean possession.

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The arrival of the ‘bomb squad’ certainly piled pressure on England’s front row – and all three second half set-pieces ended in a South African penalty.

However, with so few scrums these infringements were well spread and as a consequence never became a trend which resulted in (or needed) a yellow card.

Game Management and England’s penalty count

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Quarter One

Only three penalties were blown in the first 20 minutes.

Quarter Two

England conceded six penalties, four of which came between the 20th and 30th minutes. However, three of these were in attacking situations for support players sealing off on the ground and Joe Marchant being in front of a chip ahead. These are irrelevant for ‘totting up’ purposes.

The quiet word Brace had with captain Courtney Lawes just after the half-hour mark therefore seemed appropriate.

Quarter Three

Like the coaches and players, the officials use half-time to review the first 40 minutes and make necessary adaptations as required, so Brace should therefore have been fully aware that the home side had just shipped six penalties in a quarter.

As a result, when Sam Underhill was needlessly offside only 30 seconds into the second half he missed a golden chance to upgrade his quiet word to the more formal warning that may have nipped the problem in the bud.

By the 53rd minute England has infringed five times since the restart and with the overall penalty count now 12-4 Siya Kolisi’s frustration was mounting and the situation badly needed addressing.

Four minutes later, while already playing advantage for an earlier offside, England were penalised later in the same move in a maul. At this point there had still been no formal warning issued.

Quarter Four

Penalty number 15 arrived in the 62nd minute and only then was Lawes told: “Tidy up in this area please.”

The next infringement – another maul entry offence – saw replacement prop Will Stuart shown a yellow card.

Standards are usually set very high in international rugby and in my opinion Brace and his team were far too tolerant.

Makazole Mapimpe’s try came with England reduced to 14 and with Brace playing advantage for a Marcus Smith offside. Had the Boks failed to score it is interesting to speculate if a second yellow card would have resulted?

TMO

It was extremely refreshing to watch a match in which the first TMO intervention came after the hour mark.

This decision to only penalise rather than card Charlie Ewels for his high shot on Eben Etzebeth seemed appropriate given that the South African was on his way to ground when the contact occurred.

Kolisi Yellow Card

In commentary the excellent David Flatman disagreed with this call. However, while agreeing with his observation that the Springbok skipper never took his eyes off the ball then attempted to convert his aerial challenge into a tackle, for me the law as written was applied correctly.

Kolisi was never in a position to catch the ball, and like it or not (I personally don’t) the question of intent is no longer of any relevance to the officials in considering their sanction.

Joe Marchant was not brought to ground in a controlled or safe manner and a yellow card was therefore the correct outcome.

TMO Brian Macneice completed a thorough job by preventing England from pinching the five metres that would have brought the resulting penalty within range of the posts.

Final Minute

I have written before that a match-deciding last minute penalty call has to be crystal clear since no referee wants to determine the outcome of the match.

Both 79th minute penalties conceded by South Africa dropped into this category since Herschel Jantjies clearly failed to release in the tackle, then after Brace played advantage Francois Steyn dived in and killed the ball at the next breakdown with a ‘knee slide’ that on another day could be construed as dangerous play.

One for Twitter

There seems to be plenty of social media discussion around Max Malins’ 57th minute tackle which stopped a promising South African attack short of the home line.

Brace checked with his touch judge – who was right on top of the incident – to confirm whether Malins had made the tackle while off his feet from a subsequent contact, and hence according to law ‘out of the game.’

The touch judge advised that England’s replacement was “not clearly” on the ground, and having viewed it in slo-mo it does seem that his left foot is on the turf taking his weight while his right knee is on the ground.

Given that the TMO also had ample opportunity to intervene, but chose to stay silent, we can assume there was therefore no clear case for a penalty – or the penalty try some Springbok fans (perhaps hopefully) called for.

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Ref Watch: England dodged a high penalty count bullet

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