Ref Watch: Sorry, but the first Test officiating was too inconsistent
The addition of former World Cup final referee Nigel Owens to the Sky team covering the Lions’ tour of South Africa offers some good insight to the match officials’ thinking and approach.
But like recent ex-players who turn to punditry, he is clearly reluctant to be too critical of officials with whom he was sharing a changing room only a few months ago.
His post-match assessment of referee Nic Berry, TMO Marius Jonker and their touch judges concluded the team of four “had a good game.”
Winning coach Warren Gatland – perhaps mindful that the same group will take charge of the second and third tests – also offered lukewarm praise.
But for me there were simply too many aspects of the officiating which were inconsistent with standard operating practice. While nothing catastrophic happened from an officiating perspective, I was too often left scratching my head.
South African ‘tries’ and the TMO
The outcome of the test hinged on three critical second-half TMO calls.
Taking the easy one first, Cheslin Kolbe’s knock-on when recovering a high ball in the build up to a Damian De Allende touchdown was clear and obvious and play was correctly recalled for a Lions scrum.
Faf De Klerk’s try had earlier been allowed to stand after a lengthy review of a possible knock-on by the chasing Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Based on available TV angles this was also a correct call. Gatland’s post-match interview suggested another view exists which throws this into doubt – but if it does the British and Irish audience is yet to see it.
However, I have major doubts about Willie le Roux’s 46th minute ‘score’ being ruled out for the former Wasps full back being offside in front of Lukhanyo Am’s chip.
Berry’s onfield decision – from a position a few metres behind play – was ‘try.’ According to established protocol, this means the TMO has to find clear and obvious evidence in order to get it overturned.
Law explicitly tells us offside is based on foot position and given that neither le Roux nor Am were close to a pitch marking it is impossible to be sure beyond reasonable doubt that the full back was offside.
My gut feel in real time – like that of Nigel Owens – was that the Springboks’ no.15 was ahead of Am, but once Berry awarded the score I really struggle to see how Jonker found enough evidence to reverse this call.
Berry is not an official who exudes confidence and authority and he appeared happy to simply go with the flow for much of the match.
As the table below shows, the penalty count was almost even in the first half before the Lions turned the screw after the break with a game plan based around rarely kicking to touch and using their driving maul to great effect.
This resulted in the hosts conceding five penalties and winning none in the third quarter despite which no yellow card warning was issued.
Similarly, the Lions were pinged four times on the ground in a 17-minute first-half spell without Berry stepping in to point out the possible consequences of these repeat infringements.
|Quarter 1||Quarter 2||Quarter 3||Quarter 4|
|Pens against SA||2||4||5||3|
|Pens against BIL||3||4||0||1|
It was hard to disagree with Will Greenwood who in commentary criticised Berry’s inconsistent approach in this area.
South Africa played with penalty advantage following the game’s first scrum only to find it quickly called over when they made a break of around ten metres – which is highly unusual.
This deprived them of an opportunity to kick deep into Lions territory and also from a management perspective meant the referee lost the chance to set the tone with the front rows at the first scrum.
But when the Lions made around 30 metres while playing with penalty advantage late in the first half Berry brought play back when their attack broke down.
Two maul turnovers occurred during the match – only one of which came after Berry had called ‘maul.’
In law only three players (the ball-carrier plus one from each side) are required for a wrap-up tackle to become a maul, and there was no question that this was the case in both instances.
However, it is extremely difficult for those players to be aware of when the contact is being refereed as a maul unless they are advised by the ref’s call – as a result this poor communication is the kind of situation many find infuriating.
Hamish Watson Tip Tackle
In another break from established practice, the Scottish flanker’s 63rd minute tip tackle resulted in the award of a penalty but no further sanction.
Jonker was put in a difficult position by Berry’s instinctive reaction to the incident – “just a penalty for me.”
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) July 24, 2021
The key point here is that this was not an incident that the Australian official missed, but rather one he saw but interpreted differently to the usual approach.
On this basis, had the TMO subsequently stopped the game and asked Berry to look at a replay he would have undermined his authority.
The tackled player’s landing position was never therefore analysed, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Watson as a result escaped a yellow card.
On a more positive note…
There were 15 scrums in the match and despite pre-match speculation which suggested this would be a huge and probably very messy battleground only three concluded in a penalty award while one ended with a free kick. Nine completed at the first time of asking.
The latest crackdown
Am I alone in finding it slightly tiresome when World Rugby hands its officials a peripheral area of the game in which they are required to apply a token and usually soon-forgotten crackdown?
The latest craze is apparently to penalise those advancing ahead of a kick even when they are nowhere near play.
As is usually the case this happened once – in the opening minute – then was forgotten about for the remainder of the match.
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