Ref Watch: The final 12 and predicting how far they'll go
While social media has already found plenty to complain about within the newly-published match official list for France 2023, one thing that World Rugby cannot be accused of is pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
In fact there are absolutely no surprises among the 12-strong team of referees all of whom featured heavily in this year’s Six Nations and the Autumn Series which preceded it and nine of whom are veterans of Japan 2019.
From a refereeing perspective, the selection of Nika Amashukeli therefore dominated the post-announcement headlines. The Georgian becomes the first referee from outside rugby union’s traditional eight major nations to appear at the sport’s showcase event since Argentina’s Pablo Deluca was part of Australia 2003.
With those who narrowly missed out – including Chris Busby of Ireland, New Zealand’s James Doleman, Craig Evans (Wales), England’s Christophe Ridley and Italy’s Andrea Piardi – being selected among the seven-strong squad of specialist touch judges, the powers-that-be have also addressed the need to give some RWC exposure to a few younger faces ahead of the 2027 competition.
While the selection of Ireland’s Joy Neville as a TMO signifies a historic moment for the sport, for me the main talking point is that World Rugby have increased TMO numbers from four to seven. Of the 2019 group, only Marius Jonker returns to the TV production van, with the accent instead being on officials such as England’s Tom Foley, Neville and Kiwi Brendon Pickerill who are current or very recent ex-referees.
This tells us a lot about how pressurised the TMO’s role is now perceived to be, since spreading 40 pool stage matches between seven officials clearly puts each individual in the spotlight a lot less regularly than was the case in Japan. It will be interesting to see whether more TMOs means theynow work with the same referees on a regular basis to help smooth communication and build understanding between them.
Moving to the 12 appointed referees – who all double up as touch judges and therefore will be seen around half-a-dozen times during the pool stage – which whistlers have prospects of taking charge of big games in the competition’s latter stages?
Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
Aged only 28, Amashukeli could be around for many years having earned his top table place with good displays in some high-profile games over the last year including Argentina’s Rugby Championship win in New Zealand, South Africa’s defeat in Dublin in the autumn and the Six Nations contest between France and Scotland which began with two red cards. His big strength appears to be his unflappability under pressure.
Prospects: Pool stages only this time – but potentially a final referee of the future.
Wayne Barnes (England)
A record-breaking fifth World Cup appearance for the world’s most-capped referee. If England continue to perform as poorly as they have over the last 18 months and exit early, there must be every chance that the 44-year-old will become the second Englishman (after Ed Morrison) to take charge of the final. Probably the leading referee in the world currently; like 2019 final ref Jerome Garces retirement may quickly follow the end of the competition.
Prospects: A certainty for a semi-final and maybe more.
Nic Berry (Australia)
A former scrum half with the Queensland Reds, Wasps and Racing, Berry was fast-tracked to refereeing’s upper echelons and made his RWC debut in Japan.
His subsequent appointment to the first 2021 Lions test in South Africa affirmed his progress, only for the much-publicised Rassie Erasmus affair that followed Berry’s below-par display and the Springboks’ defeat to temporarily stall his career.
Since then the 39-year-old has gradually got things back on track with a fine Six Nations performance when France beat Wales confirming a return ticket to Paris for the World Cup. Given the history, will World Rugby feel able to appoint him to a game involving South Africa?
Prospects: Could well be trusted with an all Tier One pool stage game and if he does well Berry is an outside bet to referee a quarter-final.
Andrew Brace (Ireland)
A touch judge at Japan 2019, Brace has since taken charge of plenty of Tier One internationals with Scotland’s comfortable defeat of Wales in the Six Nations being the most recent.
The 34-year-old came under heavy social media fire following England’s extra time Autumn Cup Final win over France during the Covid period.
Brace won selection for the tournament ahead of the likes of Piardi, Pickerill and countryman Frank Murphy but lacks the star quality of some of the squad’s more established names.
Prospects: Pool stage only
Matthew Carley (England)
After taking charge of his first international in 2016, Carley narrowly missed out on selection as a referee for Japan 2019, instead being a touch judge who was also nominated as first reserve for the referee squad.
A regular in the English Premiership (where he has clocked up over 100 appearances) and Heineken Cup, the 38-year-old’s calm, methodical approach is very similar in style to his countryman Wayne Barnes. Carley oversaw a tight contest between Italy and France in this year’s Six Nations and can always be relied upon to deliver a consistent display.
Prospects: Pool stage only
Karl Dickson (England)
A Marmite figure for the English rugby public, like Carley and Brace the former Harlequin was seen in Japan 2019 as a touch judge.
Now a regular in the English Premiership, Dickson has needed over the last six years to ‘learn on the job’ in full glare of the TV cameras and at times against a backdrop of vociferous social media criticism, as a result of being fast-tracked by the RFU.
Controversy has dogged Dickson’s refereeing career, with the latest incident being the red card shown to Exeter’s Olly Woodburn following the award of a second yellow at Leicester.
To his credit the 40-year-old former scrum half has improved markedly in the last couple of years with a good showing in the Six Nations opener between Wales and Ireland being his most recent high profile international outing.
Prospects: The RFU have pushed him very hard but he’s in rarefied air here and surely won’t go beyond the pool stage.
Angus Gardner (Australia)
The softly-spoken Gardner who appears at his third World Cup – and second as a referee – first appeared in Super Rugby as far back as 2012.
In many ways his career is diametrically opposed to those of Dickson and Berry since he took up the whistle as a 15-year-old following a serious injury and as a result has close to a quarter-century of experience behind him.
Gardner is clearly trusted by the players and is someone who communicates very clearly – albeit at times in an old-fashioned style which sees him chat quite happily rather than restricting his verbal input to a few telling phrases as per the refereeing coaching manual.
Prospects: Others appear ahead of him in the pecking order for the knockout stages.
Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
New Zealand’s no.1 referee who is at his second World Cup also put in an outstanding display when handed the dubious honour of taking charge of the second Lions test in South Africa in 2021 immediately after the Erasmus controversy.
O’Keefe – then the youngest official present – was in control of Scotland’s defeat at the hands of the host nation in Tokyo four years ago. He has since been seen regularly in both the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship.
The 34-year-old Kiwi is the best French speaker (other than Mathieu Raynal) among the refereeing squad and as a result has a very good chance of being appointed to big games involving the host nation.
Prospects: Could referee the final if New Zealand are not involved.
Luke Pearce (England)
The next best French speaker, 35-year-old Pearce is also at his second World Cup. If World Rugby are brave enough to entrust the huge competition opener between France and New Zealand to anyone other than the veteran pair of Barnes and Jaco Peyper, he therefore seems the obvious choice.
Pearce seems to have slipped behind Dickson in the eyes of the RFU’s refereeing department, but few fans would see it this way. His strength as a referee lies in his ability to communicate with players and to manage the contest clearly and effectively.
Like O’Keefe and Gardner, Pearce is a career referee who began at a tender age and as a result has loads of experience at every level from grassroots upwards behind him.
Prospects: His French is a real asset and he joins Berry on the list of outsiders for a quarter-final
Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Peyper made his World Cup bow in 2015 when he featured in the pool stages before going on to oversee Wales’ narrow quarter-final win over France in Japan.
With 15 years’ experience of Super Rugby and more than a decade of international refereeing behind him the 42-year-old is almost certainly at his last World Cup.
The experienced South African got involved in social media controversy in the latter stages of Japan 2019 which saw him rapped over the knuckles, but (like England’s Barnes) he was ineligible for the final anyway after the Springboks qualified.
Perhaps due to his minimalist approach to communication, social media tells us that fans bracket him with Dickson in the ‘love him or hate him’ camp. However, fellow referees are drawn to the accuracy of his decision making and he is consistently appointed to the sport’s biggest games.
Prospects: Quarter-finals at least
Mathieu Raynal (France)
Like Gardner the 41-year-old Perpignan native was a touch judge at England 2015 before taking the whistle four years later in Japan.
With over 20 years of refereeing behind him, Raynal’s stature within the sport saw him entrusted with the 2021 series decider between the Lions and South Africa – a match which he handled superbly.
Raynal speaks English as well as O’Keefe speaks French – an obvious but overlooked fact – and his relatively low profile is at least partly due to being in the shadow of the outstanding Garces and long-standing international ref Romain Poite for so long.
Prospects: A strong contender for the quarter-finals
Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Another 2019 survivor, Williams caught the eye in Japan with his simple, unfussy style during the pool stage.
The 38-year-old Kiwi seemed to face an uphill battle to feature in a second World Cup when his Autumn Series appointments sent him to Georgia v Uruguay and Spain v Namibia while competitors were involved with Tier One contests.
However, an impressive display at the helm of the Calcutta Cup got him back on track and as a result Williams joins O’Keeffe on the plane from New Zealand.
Prospects: Pool stage only
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