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Ref Watch: Late scrum sequence comes under Calcutta Cup scrutiny

By Paul Smith
(Photo by PA)

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New Zealand’s Ben O’Keefe was the cool head that got the Lions’ summer series in South Africa back on refereeing track after the storm of controversy which engulfed the first test.

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So he was a safe pair of hands with which to entrust control of the Calcutta Cup and by and large he did a good job.

However, a lot of attention will undoubtedly focus on the sequence of scrums which took place inside Scotland’s half after 80 minutes had expired.

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The Closing Seconds 

In every tight contest the closing seconds are under minute scrutiny from both team, their support staff and supporters and this was no exception.

England had already opted not to take one long-range shot at goal which (if successful) would have squared things up at 20-all when, with the clock in the red, they set a midfield scrum.

A penalty award here would have given George Ford (or Elliot Daly) a much simpler three-point opportunity, and this seemed their preferred option as they three times looked for a second shove.

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On each occasion the scrum broke up or wheeled – which unless the referee is confident that it is caused by a deliberate ‘whip wheel’ from an attacking team seeking to ‘buy’ three points – often produces a penalty award against the defending side.

However, as Nigel Owens and Brian Moore observed in commentary, no match official likes to be responsible for determining the outcome of a match in the dying seconds.

As a result O’Keefe clearly felt he needed greater certainty in who was causing the wheel than he was able to find and three reset scrums resulted. Perhaps realising a scrum penalty would not materialise, England then moved the ball away from scrum number four and subsequently turned possession over.

Looking at the previous patterns, the scrum was untidy throughout, not just in the closing stages after the replacements arrived as is often the case.

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The first half saw England feed all three set-pieces from which they were awarded two free kicks for technical offences and one penalty.

Prior to the final sequence the second half saw Scotland win a free kick and a penalty plus two pieces of clean possession from their four feeds while the visitors won a penalty from their only put-in.

This all added up to only two of eight scrums successfully restarting play, but more relevantly four were set once and four twice which – with Ben Youngs being required to put the ball in on four occasions – made the final set-piece a total statistical outlier.

On balance of probabilities it is therefore hard to avoid the conclusion that an England penalty would have resulted at any other point in the game, which feels inconsistent.

Scotland’s Try – a fine distinction

Social media has already widely debated the legality of the quickly-taken lineout which started the move that led to Scotland’s first half try.

This appears to have been provoked by TV pictures showing that the ball with which play restarted differed from the one which England put into touch.

In law, a quick throw-in is only permitted with the same ball. This can be taken anywhere between the line of touch and the throwing team’s goal-line and does not have to be thrown in straight.

A different ball, perhaps cleaned and provided by a ball-boy, can only be used at a formed lineout, at which law tells us a minimum of two players from each side must be participating at the line of touch. This has to be thrown down the metre channel.

The lineout which restarted play prior to Scotland’s try met these criteria, and while it is unusual for the ball to be thrown in so quickly there is nothing in law which prohibits this. In short this means it was a lineout taken quickly rather than a quick throw-in and was therefore legal.

England’s Improved Discipline

Eddie Jones’ team had huge issues with the concession of needless penalties during last season’s Six Nations and until they came under the cosh with Luke Cowan-Dickie in the sin bin they were faring much better 12 months on.

Both teams conceded six penalties in the first half before the third quarter – when England as a consequence looked to be in control of the match – saw Scotland whistled a further four times while Jones’ team kept a clean sheet.

However, four penalties including the penalty try and yellow card, in seven fourth-quarter minutes changed all that before they stemmed the flow late-on to leave Scotland, by a 13-10 margin, as the more penalised side.

TMO

Welsh official Ben Whitehouse was the man in the van and he was called into action to adjudicate on two vital decisions.

The second of these saw him interject as Finn Russell lined up a simple penalty which would have extended Scotland’s lead to six points with only five minutes remaining.

Whitehouse had spotted a neck roll with which Hamish Watson had cleared Tom Curry from the previous breakdown and play quickly returned to that spot from where it restarted with an England penalty. Some on social media have suggested this should have resulted in an automatic yellow card – this is not the case. As with any other form of foul play the officials make a judgement based on the seriousness of the offence.

The TMO’s first involvement saw him asked to check O’Keefe’s on-field assessment that Cowan-Dickie had slapped a Russell kick pass forward into touch thus depriving Darcy Graham of a simple try-scoring opportunity.

Once Cowan-Dickie’s actions are deemed worthy of a penalty, he is effectively removed from the referee’s picture. The next question becomes: Would an international winger have been able to catch the kick without his illegal intervention, then was anyone else in a position to stop him scoring?

Once these questions were answered in the affirmative, the officials had to conclude that without the illegal knock down a try would probably have been scored which in turn made the award of a penalty try a formality. Law then also requires the referee to award a yellow card to the guilty party unless identification is an issue.

Cowan-Dickie had clearly lost his bearings in an unaccustomed position as the last defender on the left wing, and seemed to suggest that he was aiming to knock the ball backwards into touch. However, this is also a penalty offence so the same outcome would have materialised.

Good teamwork from the officials, but more impressively spot on in real time from O’Keefe.

Anorak’s Corner

The few minutes immediately following Cowan-Dickie’s sin binning produced the amusing sight of Joe Marler trying to throw into a lineout and the ball making it about two metres at the cost of a free kick. This also highlighted an obscure point of law.

England were not permitted to bring on Jamie George as temporary replacement for a sacrificed back-rower until the next scrum which is why Marler ended up throwing in.

However, had they accepted that the Saracens hooker would stay on the field as an out-of-position back-rower playing alongside Cowan-Dickie after the Exeter hooker returned from the bin in the 76th minute, he could have come on immediately as a permanent replacement prior to the restart that followed the penalty try.

While having four front-rowers on the pitch for the last four minutes may not have been ideal, making this change would have prevented the lineout issue which ultimately cost them the penalty with which Russell sealed the match from the next phase of play.

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