Ref Watch: The worrisome early Lions tour refereeing trend
Pre-test series warm-up matches in most sports these days leave a little to be desired.
In cricket, for example, the growingly common sight of Australia facing county second XI bowlers delivers little by way of meaningful practice.
Historically the British & Irish Lions have eased into tours with a couple of gentle pipe-openers – so perhaps the relatively uncompetitive run-outs against Japan and the Sigma Lions is nothing that unusual.
But…and it’s a big one…this is a Lions tour like no other in many ways. As a result, there are very few opportunities for meaningful game time before the all-important first test with the Springboks.
Being under-cooked against the World Champions (who admittedly themselves are entirely without match practice) is a worrying prospect. After all, coming back from one-nil down against a side renowned for its toughness is the hardest possible route to a series win.
And it seems to me that the refereeing of both warm-up games to date has – like the contests themselves – lacked a hard edge.
While Pascal Gauzere and AJ Jacobs have blended unobtrusively into the background and done perfectly reasonable jobs, I am left with an uncomfortable feeling that the Lions’ medium-term prospects are not being helped by this relaxed approach.
Based on recent history, beating South Africa – which only New Zealand managed in the pool stages of Japan 2019 – requires a side to at least share and ideally win huge physical contests at the scrum, lineout and breakdown.
As England discovered in the World Cup final, if you are unable to subdue their setpiece and win some quick ball in the contact area, you will have very little possession with which to attack.
I thought Nigel Owens’ presence in the commentary team brought plenty of insight – and it was obvious from an early stage (when he remarked on the number of collapses and resets) that he was unhappy with the refereeing of the scrum.
As the details below show, AJ Jacobs was happy to set his standards fairly low and as a result the scrum became less of a contest and more of a mechanism to get the game restarted.
|Quarter 1||Quarter 2||Quarter 3||Quarter 4|
|Pens against Sigma Lions||1||3||3||4|
|Pens against B&I Lions||3||2||0||4|
This is definitely not what the Lions will experience when the test matches arrive.
On the six Sigma Lions feeds there were five resets. Three subsequently collapsed with play being allowed to continue. One Sigma feed resulted in a Lions penalty.
The four Lions feeds resulted in the award of one free kick and two penalties to the tourists. The fourth scrum collapsed with play again being allowed to continue.
None of the ten scrums therefore completed without a penalty/free kick award, reset or collapse – a situation which it is impossible to imagine being acceptable in a test match.
The Springbok lineout from the Matfield/Botha era onwards has been a well-oiled machine which takes a lot to disrupt.
“It put my name out there in a way I wouldn’t have hoped for but in another way, it gave an opportunity to show that I’m not just a kid that has been knocked out once and then that was it.” https://t.co/XQn67PoS3h
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 4, 2021
In Johannesburg, the tourists were penalised for across-the-lineout contact in the 13th and 14th minutes after which they adjusted their approach.
By my reckoning the Lions’ lineout stats against the Sigma Lions were a perfect 21-from-21 while they stole two of their hosts’ 11 throws.
Warren Gatland’s side also had a 100 per cent return on their own throw against Japan seven days earlier.
Competition in the air was all-but eradicated during these matches – the big question is will this standard also be applied during the test series?
Regular viewers of the Six Nations, Heineken Cup and Gallagher Premiership are used to seeing the breakdown as an area where a number of turnovers are achieved in every match.
But like the lineout, it seemed very little competition was allowed on the ground during the Lions’ win over the Sigma Lions.
It is hard to remember one turnover of note, while the ‘jackallers’ on both sides won only three penalties between them.
Along with tough policing of the tackler this provided plenty of quick ball which hugely benefitted the Lions. It also enhanced the game as a spectacle…but again, is this how the test series will be officiated?
To continue with the theme, I felt AJ Jacobs twice took the route of least resistance when looking at tight decisions with the assistance of the TMO.
Wyn Jones’ try was correctly ruled out for Courtney Lawes’ using a neck roll when clearing the previous breakdown. However, this contact with the head – which as Nigel Owens pointed out was continuous rather than instantaneous – would surely have merited a yellow card in most top-class rugby.
I believe the Northampton forward would almost certainly also have spent time in the sinbin last weekend in a match refereed to normal ‘competitive’ standards when he cynically slowed Japanese possession down in the Lions 22 shortly before half-time.
And surely Jonny Hill’s obstruction by Nathan Mcbeth in the build-up to the Sigma Lions’ second try would be reviewed and probably penalised in a test match?
SARFU has brought experienced international officials (and yesterday’s touch judges) Wayne Barnes and Jaco Peyper into an officiating bubble and they between them will control the Lions’ remaining warm-up games.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 4, 2021
The Sigma Lions finished bottom of the recent Rainbow Cup rankings, so perhaps as the standard of the opposition improves we will see a corresponding increase in intensity levels from the men with the whistle?
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