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Ref Watch: Ireland dodged a bullet in the scrum

By Paul Smith
Referee Mathieu Raynal (Getty Images)

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Mathieu Raynal is the last top French official standing following the retirements of Jerome Garces, Romain Poite and Alexandre Ruiz and his appointment to last summer’s third test between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions showed the esteem in which he is held by World Rugby’s refereeing bosses.

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That day the 40-year-old did a fine job in the most testing of circumstances – following Rassie Erasmus’ video demolition of first test ref Nic Berry – but when he reviews his performance in the thunderous England v Ireland Six Nations encounter it is likely that he will be less satisfied.

The Big Call
Having the fastest sending off in international rugby history on your refereeing CV is probably a useful ticket to the post-career after-dinner speaking circuit, but also an incredibly difficult situation for any official to be faced with.

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As the TV commentators immediately noted, a red card was the only possible outcome under the head contact protocols with which we have all become so familiar in recent years.

To his credit, once alerted to the situation by TMO Marius Jonker, Raynal worked methodically through the incident to establish beyond doubt that there had been direct head contact, that force was present and that there was no mitigation.

The ‘rugby’s gone soft’ mob who fill social media will doubtless wade in, but this is exactly the type of tackle which World Rugby’s working party aim to eradicate, and the fact that James Ryan was concussed and forced to immediately leave the field tells its own story.

Under trials in the Southern Hemisphere Ewels would have received a 20-minute yellow card before being replaced by (presumably) Joe Launchbury, and England being forced to play 78 minutes with 14 men may accelerate this debate north of the equator.

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Red Cards and the Refereeing Psyche
What non-referees will not appreciate is the extent to which the whistler’s focus on the job in hand is under threat following an incident like this so early in a game.

It is extremely difficult not to continually replay the incident in your mind while wondering if you could have done anything different to prevent the red card – although having the chance to review it on the big screen would allay the referee’s worst fears that a mistake might have been made.

As a result concentration on the rest of the game can be difficult, while a whole new dynamic is created as a result of the sending off. Pre-match planning often goes out of the window for both teams and the officials as the contest takes on a very different hue to that anticipated.

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This was very much the case at Twickenham, but to Raynal’s credit his concentration appeared unaffected.

Tiny Margins
Maro Itoje put in a huge shift for England and was twice at the centre of crucial calls which for me the officials got right.

His 12th minute slap on Jamison Gibson-Park which caused the ball to go forward caused a James Lowe try to be ruled out via TMO review. The key points here are that Itoje only played the Irish no.9 after he had lifted the ball from the ground and made contact with his wrist rather than the ball itself – since it went forward it would otherwise have been a deliberate knock-on and probably a yellow card would have followed given the incident’s proximity to the home line.

In similar vein, Itoje reached through a forest of bodies to grab Gibson-Park’s wrist after he lifted a ball from a ruck close to England’s line in the second half. By lifting the ball the ruck was over, and in effect Itoje was making a tackle which since he was on his feet and onside was entirely legal despite him still being part of the breakdown.

Scrum Carnage
The biggest area which Raynal will retrospectively view with concern was his handling of the scrum.

England fed ten set-pieces in total with two being reset. Of the remaining eight, the first ended in an Ireland penalty after which the hosts were awarded a free kick and six penalties.

The majority of these came as a result of Ireland going backwards on their tight-head side in scrums which wheeled.
The first question a referee asks himself in this situation is whether the wheel has been caused by instability in the initial engagement, in which case slowing things down and working with the front rows usually provides a solution.

Once he is happy that this is not the case, the next aspect to look at is whether one team is stepping backwards rather than driving forwards as law requires. This manoeuvre – known as a whip wheel – also can be accelerated by the loose had going across the scrum at an angle, and is illegal.

Finally, this leaves him with the option to either reset the scrum if he is unsure who is at fault or penalise the team he believes are failing to deal with the pressure being applied – in this case Ireland.

As Lawrence Dallaglio observed in commentary, French referees are trained to reward the pack which is going forwards, and this is what Raynal consistently did.

So far so good, but we then have to ask why, once Tadgh Furlong had been penalised four times for the same offence, Raynal took no further action to deal with this repeat infringement prior to his award of the sixth penalty in the 59th minute.

At this point Ireland were finally given a formal warning which, with only one further scrum taking place from which the visitors’ replacement front row won clean ball late in the game, then never developed into the yellow card which Engand will believe their scrum dominance earned.

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