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Ref Watch: Six Nations officiating report card

By Paul Smith
Owen Farrell and Pascal Gauzere (Photo by David Rogers - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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Almost half of the red cards shown in the Six Nations’ 21-year history have come in the 2021 competition.

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This tells us plenty about rugby union’s drive to reduce head contacts in the light of the early onset dementia suffered by a number of early twenty-first century professionals including Steve Thompson, Dan Scarbrough and Alix Popham.

In turn, the law-makers’ actions also threaten to totally change the face of the sport if players are unable to adapt their tackle and ruck clear-out techniques.

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Jack Nowell guests on The Offload:
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Jack Nowell guests on The Offload:

This spate of red cards has thrust match officials further into the spotlight than is normally the case with three of 2021 champions Wales’ opponents spending significant spells with 14 men.

There is a very clearly defined protocol which the referee and TMO follow when assessing head contacts and few would dispute it was applied to the letter when dealing with Peter O’Mahony, Bundee Aki, Zander Fagerson, Paul Willemse and Finn Russell.

As a result the TMO’s role has sky-rocketed in significance since it is often the ‘man-in-the-van’ that spots dangerous clear-outs like those that sent Fagerson and O’Mahony for an early bath. In making appointments to big games it is now apparent that the TMO rather than the two touch judges has become World Rugby’s second priority – for instance the hugely experienced Wayne Barnes was Luke Pearce’s wing man for Wales’ crucial trip to Paris.

O Mahony Ireland
(Getty Images)
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The total change in ethos which this crackdown has created also brings something of an identity crisis for the sport. To be red carded in years gone by a deliberate, knowing act of foul play usually had to be present. The officials are no longer required to find and consider this kind of intent – instead they ask whether the perpetrator’s actions are likely to result in contact with the head and should therefore be deemed ‘reckless.’

This means Russell’s mis-timed fend-off sent him to the sidelines. It is no exaggeration to say that anyone refereeing that incident even five years ago would have probably played on or at worst given a penalty for leading with an arm rather than a hand-off.

Six Nations
Finn Russell /Getty

My timeline – and I’m sure those of others with an officiating background – is crammed with current amateur players and ex-players who simply cannot believe their eyes. In fairness most blame the law-makers rather than the officials, but nonetheless they feel the sport they love is in danger of losing much of its appeal. The loved ones of Messrs Thompson, Scarbrough and Popham would probably not agree.

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Covid-19 meant not only stadiums without fans but also an entirely Northern Hemisphere officiating cast. Allied with recent retirements of experienced officials including Nigel Owens, Jerome Garces and George Clancy this threw a host of lesser-known names into the spotlight with mixed results.

England’s Pearce, who was part of the supporting cast at the 2019 World Cup, was the whistler whose star gained the most ascendancy. His near-flawless performance in the France v Wales encounter was delivered in the most pressurised of environments, while his ability to converse in French and to deliver fast-tempo matches without compromising control currently sets him apart from the rest.

Luke Pearce /Getty

Ireland’s Andrew Brace also did his future prospects no harm through a good performance during England’s win over France, while former sevens international Mike Adamson’s steady first Six Nations appearance was very welcome since Scotland’s top-table officiating cupboard has been pretty bare in recent times.

England’s Matthew Carley is also now firmly established and very at home on the international stage, while Joy Neville’s cool head really impressed when supporting Brace from the TMO chair. Her onfield performances in the Pro-14 and Europe will doubtless be carefully scrutinised in the run-up to France 2023.

Joy Neville
Joy Neville /Getty Images

At the other end of the spectrum, France’s Pascal Gauzere had a nightmare day when taking charge of Wales’ defeat of England. His complete loss of concentration handed a try to an enterprising Dan Biggar-Josh Adams combination, while the call – in which TMO Alex Ruiz was equally culpable – to disregard a clear knock-on in the build-up to Liam Williams’ score was simply baffling.

Many sports fans only see live rugby once per year and our sport’s complicated laws present quite a challenge. But figuring out what constitutes a knock-on or a forward pass should not be not one of these, and the confusion brought about by some absurdly obtuse recent innovations in how these rugby fundamentals are officiated needs ending. This kind of simple stuff must be correct 100 per cent of the time.

With France’s Romain Poite nearing the end of his career, Gauzere’s need to rebuild his reputation following his nightmare day makes the identity of the referees for the three summer tests between South Africa and the Lions a tricky question. If World Rugby seek the usual mixed group of Southern and Northern Hemisphere representatives, a French official is required to join whistlers from New Zealand or Australia. Based on the evidence of the last two months Mathieu Raynal is on a short-list of one.

Doubtless the TMO will continue to play a key role in the summer series, but following Barnes’ nine involvements in the 125-minute duration France v Wales match is it time to review how the ‘man-in the-van’ is used?

Getting everything forensically correct is simply not possible in a sport like rugby which at times has bodies everywhere in addition to plenty of grey areas in its laws. Should it therefore sacrifice some of this quest for perfection for a speedier game where the referee’s authority as the sole judge of fact is more fully restored?

Until the TMO’s scope grew, assisting the ref with grounding calls, confirming if dubious kicks have split the posts and advising on foul play were the domain of the touch judge. It is now hard to see what the flag wavers contribute beyond bringing the jelly babies the officiating team share at half-time. Some rebalancing of responsibilities is required.

Finally, much has been made of Owen Farrell’s abrupt manner when dealing with Gauzere and how this contrasted with Alun Wyn Jones’ more considered approach. Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg is another who appears to have a great rapport with the officials, and a really good manner when speaking to them.

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell argues with referee Pascal Gauzere

This led former international captain Lawrence Dallaglio to call for a change at England’s onfield helm. The 2003 World Cup winner also stated how much easier it is for a forward to captain based on proximity to the referee and the resulting ability to hold informal dialogue.

Accepting this seems to me to also condone a running conversation between the captain and the ref, which in all honesty is far from helpful for either of them. A couple of clarifications per game plus a brief conversation at half-time should be ample for any skipper, while less requirement to manage ongoing interaction leaves the official with more time to concentrate on making a high percentage of correct calls.

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Ref Watch: Six Nations officiating report card

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