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Ref Watch: Paul Williams, waterbreaks, scrums and good ref prep

By Paul Smith
Courtney Lawes of England speaks to the referee during game three of the International Test match series between the Australia Wallabies and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 16, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

New Zealand’s Paul Williams has not had as much exposure in the Northern Hemisphere in recent times as some of his Antipodean refereeing colleagues but after impressing at the 2019 World Cup and holding his place among the Tier One officiating elite he must sit high in the pecking order for next year’s competition in France.

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With plenty at stake the deciding test of an Australia v England series certainly put him back under the spotlight and he will reflect on a job well done – and also with some satisfaction on a well-managed, controversy-free match in which the TMO had little involvement.

Ellis Genge scrum penalty
Early scrum exchanges were a little messy and it was interesting to observe England’s loose head in lengthy conversation with the touch judge on his side of the field while Williams oversaw treatment being administered to James Slipper some 30 metres upfield.

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Sam Cane lost for answers as Ian Foster’s job questioned by media after series loss to Ireland | All Blacks press conference
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Sam Cane lost for answers as Ian Foster’s job questioned by media after series loss to Ireland | All Blacks press conference

A few minutes later the next scrum ended with England being awarded a penalty on Genge’s side which appeared to be called in from the touchline – where incidentally first test referee James Doleman was on one line and second test referee Andrew Brace on the other.

Whatever Genge highlighted was clearly correct – or alternatively his time as Leicester’s captain has developed his influencing skills…

An open mind or good prep?
I recall once being berated by an angry coach because I penalised one of his players then told him I had seen the offender commit exactly the same offence the previous time I had taken charge of his club.

The coach’s angle was that he expected the referee to start every game with a clean slate and pay no heed to anything which happened previously. When I then asked him if he watched videos (it was a few years back!) of opponents in the run-up to the match he looked blankly at me…

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Of course, as an official you have to retain an open mind, but at the same time you do your preparation about players you will encounter. This enables you to consider (for example) how you might handle an irate Dan Biggar/Owen Farrell/Johnny Sexton.

The hair-pulling spat which saw Jonny Hill yellow carded and Darcy Swain sent off in the first test is still fresh in everyone’s mind and based on recent evidence the Exeter Chief now clearly operates as England’s ‘enforcer’ – a fact which will also not have passed the officials by.

Meanwhile, Nic White appears a typically chippy scrum half with plenty to say to anyone who might listen, so it was no surprise that the two clashed early on after Hill hit the Wallaby no.9 slightly late or that a verbal exchange followed.

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A sure sign of the officials’ pre-match prep was found in the speed with which play was stopped. Since the scuffle happened some way behind the action, Williams must have received a “stop the game” call from the trailing touch judge whose job is to watch players getting up from the ground and he immediately blasted the whistle.

The fact that the stoppage halted a promising home attack tells us either that a home player was the guilty party (which White wasn’t) or that the officials had decided to take no risks with foul play in the opening minutes and stop the action immediately. This approach aims to prevent, for example, a bit of hair-pulling developing into a head butt which sees a player red-carded.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail…

Water Breaks
It was good to see the new World Rugby water break directive in action – and that as a result of the timed stoppages on 20 and 60 minutes there were not a small army of Rassie Erasmus/Neil Jenkins types close to the sidelines outside the technical areas masquerading underneath hi-viz jackets and baseball caps as water-carriers.

Quarter 1Quarter 2Quarter 3Quarter 4
Pens against Australia2422
Pens against England3242

Know your Law Book
Lewis Ludlam almost pulled off a coup when he ran past a group of Australian players as they bound to the catcher who had received a second-half kick-off before joining from the green-and-gold side from where he had direct access to the ball.

Had he been the first England player to join, a maul would not have existed, and there would therefore have been no offside line.

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However, replays showed his skipper had beaten him to the punch and legally bound himself to the England side a split second earlier.

We will never know if Mr Williams had processed all this before he penalised Ludlam, or if he simply saw a white shirt on the ‘wrong’ side. Either way he got the call correct, and England were left to rue their timing or lack of communication.

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