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Ref Watch: The Fiji Conspiracy Theory

By Paul Smith
Players of Fiji as they celebrate after defeating Australia during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Australia and Fiji at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on September 17, 2023 in Saint-Etienne, France. (Photo by Pauline Ballet - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

It is impossible not to be drawn to the way Fiji play rugby and the respect, warmth and charm which have seemed to surround their squad for as long as I have watched rugby.


Listening to comments from the excellent Mark Evans – now the Chief Exec of recently-formed Super Rugby outfit Fijian Drua – they are developing fast as a rugby force and as the warm-up win over England and performances in defeat against Wales and in victory over Australia show they could go a long way in this World Cup.

In summary Fiji are everyone’s second team – but it does seem that analysis of how refereeing decisions affect them has at times been less than rational over the last week.

In addition, while equality for all is clearly vital, the rush to convert a couple of unfortunate on-pitch calls into conspiracy theories regarding the authorities and/or match officials’ persecution of ‘smaller’ nations is for me a worrying trend.

From personal experience of over 900 games as a match official at a range of levels I can say with total honesty that once you are on the field you simply see two rugby teams – in the case of Fiji and Australia one wearing yellow and the other wearing white – and treat them both the same.

You referee what is in front of you to the best of your ability regardless of the personalities involved. While I never got anywhere near the international stage, knowing plenty who have I cannot believe this approach changes whether you are controlling South Africa or South Mimms.

While we all make mistakes in sport as in life, an honest mistake or wrong option taken in a 50-50 situation does not automatically mean deeper forces are at work.


Do the sport’s super-powers apply more pressure to the officials than Fiji or Japan or Portugal? Perhaps – but credit referees at this level with having enough nous and experience to recognise and deal with that. After all they are the best in the sport which is why they are at the World Cup.

This weekend’s game saw Australia penalised 18 times to Fiji’s seven. That had nothing to do with who the two sets of players were representing but rather spoke volumes about which side was dominant for much of the contest.

In the light of Fiji’s frustrations against Wales last weekend much social media commentary focused on how hard done-to they were. Plenty of former players jumped on this conspiracy theory bandwagon to further fan the flames.

Since this set the tone for tonight’s TV coverage in the UK it is worth reflecting on what happened in Bordeaux last Sunday and exploding some of the myths.


To my eyes the only controversial call in the first half related to the non-award of a penalty try to Fiji when Will Rowlands and Ryan Elias tackled Fiji loose head Eroni Mawi as he dived for the line and lost the ball forward in contact.

A lengthy TMO review followed at the end of which Brian MacNeice and referee Matthew Carley felt both defenders made enough effort to ‘wrap’ at least one arm to enable their tackles to be adjudged legal.


While this was a tight call there was surely not enough evidence to suggest a clear and obvious onfield mistake had been made?

Watching the last 20 minutes for a second time, I am still happy that Matthew Carley’s only error was his game management decision not to warn Wales after their concession of three consecutive penalties rather than four. Had he taken this route the fourth penalty (if it still happened) would therefore have been a yellow card offence.

As I explained in last week’s column, prior to these infringements the penalty count stood at eight apiece. Since discipline was not therefore a concern, and with the first of the four penalties subsequently awarded being inside the Fiji half, Carley showed more leniency than may otherwise have been the case – although with hindsight I am sure he regrets this choice.

Coming only two minutes later, the timing of Lekima Tagitagivalu’s sinbinning could then not have been worse from the referee’s perspective, since a card correctly shown for his one-off offence contrasted so sharply with the tolerance shown to Wales only seconds earlier.

Consider however that when the islanders collapsed a fast-moving driving maul ten metres from their own line it was done in full knowledge that a Wales try or a penalty try plus yellow card was the likely outcome if they allowed it to progress closer to or over their line.

They might be great rugby players and lovely people but they can clearly also be cynical when required! Transpose this offence into any rugby match at any level and it is worthy of a yellow card as Fiji well know.

While their coach and captain’s post-match interview (which ITV replayed seven days on) reflected disappointment at both their defeat and Carley’s tolerant approach to Wales, making a comparison between these two differing applications of a yellow card is comparing night and day.

Against this backdrop, seven days later TV coverage in the UK spent the half-time interval of Australia v Fiji trying to find instances of the ‘tier two’ nation being unfairly treated – with the sub-text being that this was happening because they were facing ‘tier one’ opponents.

But this narrative displayed a worrying lack of understanding of law and TMO protocol-based considerations.

Fiji Rugby Championship
Players of Fiji as they celebrate after defeating Australia during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Australia and Fiji at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on September 17, 2023 in Saint-Etienne, France. (Photo by Pauline Ballet – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The first Australian try followed a turnover on the ground when to my eyes Rory Arnold prevented the Fijian ball-carrier from playing the ball in contact and should have been penalised, but which in real time referee Andrew Brace failed to pick up.

Following a fine kick which created a 50-22 situation, Fiji’s left winger Semi Radrada then had the chance to stop a quick throw by playing the ball as it lay a couple of metres from his feet in touch but opted not to.

He also was unable to get himself in a position to legally contest the quick throw-in that followed and some superb quick thinking by Mark Nawaqanitawase then launched an exchange of passes from which the Wallabies scored.

ITV were quick to highlight the penalty that was missed on the ground but more importantly never at any point explained that the TMO protocol does not allow examination of technical offences to go back to events prior to the last restart (in this case the quick throw-in) or more than two phases of play.

For foul play timescales are stretched much further, but since this tackle offence is very much in the ‘technical’ area unless he broke the protocol MacNeice (yes, him again!) was unable to intervene.

Once this is understood we are clearly looking at a split-second call which the referee probably got wrong – but like the players he is human and in the same way that Radrada knocked on at the death seven days earlier, mistakes do happen.

ITV then looked at an early incident that saw outstanding Fiji scrum-half Simione Kuruvoli hurl a close-range pass directly at the prone figure of Arnold who was on the ground on the wrong side.

A freak bounce enabled the Fiji no.9 to regather and break through cover which was doubtless distracted by his previous action, only for Brace to recall play for the original penalty.

Since the ball rebounded backwards longer advantage could have been played but given that Kuruvoli’s flung pass could easily have hit the Wallaby in the face and caused a flashpoint there was no way this could be allowed to progress unchecked so early in the match.

Common sense is a big part of game management for a referee and while reversing the penalty for this ‘ungentlemanly conduct’ would have been a step too far, equally turning a blind eye to his actions would have sent entirely the wrong message.

None of this was explained by ITV’s experts.

With studio pundit John Barclay to the fore, ITV then risked delaying their coverage of the second half restart to show another quickly taken lineout.


This time from close to the Australia line at the end of the first half some major confusion led to the Wallaby throw going loose and Fiji ‘scoring’ a try which Brace disallowed in favour of resetting the lineout.

A slower look at the incident showed the ball that went into touch was played by Marika Koroibete then scooped up by a ball-boy meaning a quick throw was not an option since a different ball was in use.

In law what transpired is therefore termed a formed lineout, which requires both sides to have enough time to set the same numbers providing neither delays unnecessarily. The haste with which Australia threw in the ball delivered by a ball-boy was not consistent with this.

None of this was explained by ITV’s experts.

Yet another case of ‘expert’ pundits not knowing the detail of law or an attempt to build a storyline? Make up your own mind…



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