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Ref Watch: Rugby shoots itself in the 'player safety' foot again

By Paul Smith
Damon Murphy reacts during the Guinness Six Nations match between Italy and England (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images)

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The need to try and keep the game moving is drilled into all referees as they work their way through the ranks. Little is more frustrating for opponents and spectators than endless time-wasting and cynical attempts to slow the game down. Yellow cards were introduced for just this sort of offence.

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However, the one item higher on the radar of match officials at every level is that you take zero chances with player welfare, regardless of how long it takes.

For speed of access, medical support personnel are allowed to follow the game inside the roped off area known in law as ‘the playing enclosure.’ They have total freedom at any point to run on the pitch and treat an injured player, then as long as they need to deal with what they find.

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Zebo on France v Ireland
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Zebo on France v Ireland

Where this medical resource is sometimes not available at lower levels it is endlessly drilled into referees that they are not qualified or authorised to make medical decisions. Quite simply you stay out of medical matters and let those with superior skills take over. From a paramedic team in an ambulance to a guy with a bucket and sponge or a first-aid trained teacher or fitness coach playing for the opposition it is over to them.

And where you are unhappy with the outcome you always err on the side of safety. I recall being in charge of a university game when there was no trained medical support available. A player who suffered a heavy head blow declared himself ready to continue when a quick look into his eyes and his unsteady gait suggested – even to my untrained eye – that he was anything but.

His team had no replacements so a lengthy debate ensued which eventually reached the point of me giving them the choice of playing with 14 or having full time called there and then. They suffered a heavy defeat but by the end the injured player had recovered enough to thank me for saving him from himself.

The relevance of this to Damon Murphy’s contribution to Italy’s round two Six Nations defeat by England is that he broke this golden rule.

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Perhaps keen not to excessively delay a high-profile match being televised live, or mindful of criticism heaped on officials who request endless TMO replays when the outcome is apparent after two or three, or maybe just failing to think clearly enough under pressure, the Australian official made a big mistake.

England winger Jack Nowell was receiving treatment from his team’s medics midway through the first half following an accidental head contact when Murphy came into camera.

This triggered the ITV commentary team, Nick Mullins, Lawrence Dallaglio and Ben Kay, to explain the procedure which is now in place at elite level whereby an independent doctor views concussion footage from the sidelines.

This process exists to ensure that no player is put at risk by his own team’s medic – perhaps under pressure from their miked-up head coach – to short-cut the head injury assessment process when a player initially appears OK.

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England’s medic was clearly happy with Nowell but waiting for the all clear to be issued by the man in the stand.

But Murphy hurried this process along by advising “If he’s not going to go to HIA let’s go. Back his decision please.” The medic hesitated before pointing to the stand and responding: “On the field is fine; let’s wait for the video check.”

However, Nowell then jogged back to his position, the medic left the pitch and play restarted without the independent doctor giving his agreement.

“I don’t think those watching the video replay have given the all-clear,” Kay said in commentary. “The ref has rushed that decision which is wrong.”

At this point the clock showed 14.56 and when play next stopped at 16.06 Nowell left the field for an HIA which he failed and as a consequence was permanently replaced by Elliot Daly.

Thankfully Nowell had very little involvement during that 70-second period but nonetheless at a time when player welfare has never been more under the spotlight, and 24 hours after English rugby suffered a tragedy at a level seven game in the Midlands, this is really not the point.

The protocols are there for a reason and need to be followed to the letter.

Game Management

Even putting this incident to one side, the third Australian ref to take charge of a Six Nations game this weekend was the least impressive.

In particular it seemed his standards were set too low when considering penalty trends and their impact on the match.

At international level little happens by accident and players should expect zero tolerance from the officials. However, the Azzurri had conceded eight penalties to England’s two in the opening 34 minutes before Murphy felt a warning was required.

Similarly, in the second half England survived until the 76th minute before acting captain Henry Slade was summoned for a talking to. By this juncture they had also infringed on eight occasions to Italy’s four.

In Murphy’s defence few of these penalties were close to either try-line, but even when Tom Curry did cynically slow the ball on the ground in his defensive ‘red zone’ nothing more than a penalty resulted.

Itoje Disallowed Try

A number of people have queried on social media why the TMO was allowed to intervene and subsequently rule out the ‘try’ Maro Itoje claimed following a close-range 32nd minute lineout.

Former England lock – now forwards coach at Championship club Ampthill – Mouritz Botha was one of these.

Under law 15 the TMO may intervene for foul play (as distinct from technical infringements) and to help the onfield officials adjudicate on the award of tries.

Clause 15 (d) specifically includes examination of phases leading up to the score, so looking at a forward pass – or in this instance lineout obstruction – is within their remit when a try results.

Scrum

The second half opened with the award of penalties to England at the first two scrums but thereafter it was all Italy with a free kick and three penalties going their way from the next seven set-pieces.

Three of these came at consecutive scrums, but as per his relaxed approach to persistent infringement Murphy declined to take any further action.

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