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Ref Watch: Who will be given the task of rugby's grandest contest?

By Paul Smith
Referee Mathieu Raynal during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between England and Argentina at Stade Velodrome on September 09, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

Could we end up with a New Zealand versus England World Cup final?


Given that Steve Borthwick’s misfiring team will first need to reverse their 2019 final defeat against a South African side who played superbly to see off hosts France it seems unlikely.

However it is possible and if so, in addition to surprise finalists, we may also have a very unexpected World Cup final referee.

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WATCH as French captain Antoine Dupont spits the dummy about some of referee Ben O’Keeffe’s decision in their one-point loss to South Africa

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WATCH as French captain Antoine Dupont spits the dummy about some of referee Ben O’Keeffe’s decision in their one-point loss to South Africa

With Jaco Peyper probably ruled out by injury – although this is not yet confirmed – and Wayne Barnes plus Ben O’Keeffe ineligible due to their nationalities, of the four quarter-final referees France’s Mathieu Raynal would be the last man standing.

I am reliably informed that World Rugby’s post-pool stage pecking order had the four number one touch judges appointed to the quarter finals as their fifth to eighth ranked referees behind Barnes, Peyper, O’Keeffe and Raynal.

Of these Karl Dickson, Matthew Carley and Paul Williams are also ineligible on nationality grounds which leaves Australian Nic Berry as the next best option to Raynal. Interestingly Berry and Raynal were two of the three referees who took charge of test matches in the 2021 Lions series.

More probably New Zealand will play South Africa with Wayne Barnes in charge and Raynal on the touchline but never say never…


Prior to then don’t be surprised if Barnes is given a rest from next weekend’s semi-finals to ensure he doesn’t follow Peyper to the physio’s room ahead of the final.

My best guess therefore is that Raynal will take charge of New Zealand v Argentina with O’Keeffe whistling England v South Africa.

South Africa v France

Anyone fortunate enough to have Stade de France tickets for both Saturday and Sunday’s quarter-finals has been treated to an amazing weekend of rugby.

From a refereeing perspective, the biggest eye-catcher from South Africa’s win over the hosts was the incredible discipline shown by both sides who conceded only six penalties apiece plus the yellow card shown to Eben Etzebeth.

An all-Kiwi officiating team enjoyed a generally sound night with there probably being only one major talking point at the end of the tightest possible encounter.


This came 12 minutes from time when France kicked off following Etzebeth’s try and ended up conceding a penalty on halfway after the ball went loose and they killed it on the ground when in retreat.


Penalties Conceded
Yellow Cards
Red Cards

English TV coverage focused on the breakdown penalty – which with multiple hands on the ball could have gone either way before O’Keeffe rewarded Kwagga Smith. But prior to that was there a knock-on by Deon Fourie which took the ball out of Antoine Dupont’s grasp?

Since Handre Pollard then turned the penalty into three points with a mighty thump of his right boot and France ultimately came up short by one point these were clearly key calls which hopefully were reviewed ‘behind the scenes’ by the TMO.

Keep the ref posted

There were a handful of really creative ideas in both teams’ game plans and it set me wondering whether O’Keeffe had been made aware beforehand of some of their planned innovations?

For example, when France added centre Jonathan Danty to the front of a third-minute lineout they had nine forwards and three lifting pods which is legal but also slightly unusual.

And when South Africa’s Damian Willemse called a mark late in the first half the Springboks promptly exercised their right (under law 20) to take a scrum instead of a free kick. Presumably, this was influenced by a feeling that their front row were getting on top – a scrum penalty subsequently confirmed this as a good choice – but this was a very unusual option to take inside their own 22.

Ref Watch Owen Farrell
Captains Siya Kolisi of South Africa and Antoine Dupont of France interact at The Asahi Coin Toss prior to the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between France and South Africa at Stade de France on October 15, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Clearly you would expect an international referee to interpret these situations correctly despite seeing them for the first time in the red-hot cauldron of a game being played at 90 mph. However, by quietly telling him what might happen beforehand teams take away any possibility of O’Keeffe being caught out by their innovative approach.

Faffing About

South Africa’s bench proved the difference between these two outstanding teams and it was their replacement scrum-half Faf de Klerk that created a situation which I thought O’Keeffe handled superbly.

With the Springboks piling pressure on the tournament hosts the former Sale no.9 collected the ball at the base of the breakdown four minutes from time and fired it directly at a French player who was still on the ground a couple of metres behind him following the previous phase.

Faf de Klerk Ref Watch Owen Farrell
Faf de Klerk – PA

Clearly this was an attempt to ‘buy’ a penalty which would have given the Boks three easy points at a vital point in the match – but instead it proved a waste of good attacking possession since O’Keeffe promptly told de Klerk that he was not interested and gave a scrum.

Clever play or sharp practice…take your choice, but for me it was great to see this handled so firmly.


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