Ref Watch: Luke Pearce is the rising star of international refereeing and as I have previously written, in my opinion, the heir apparent to Wayne Barnes as England’s leading official.
Plenty of controversy has shrouded a Six Nations in which players have struggled to come to terms with the crackdown on contact with the head. In the Covid-enforced absence of Southern Hemisphere officials it was therefore no co-incidence that World Rugby turned to Pearce and Barnes plus leading English Premiership officials Matthew Carley and Christophe Ridley for this potential competition decider.
And at the end of a quite remarkable match which spanned 125 gripping minutes, contained a final quarter with a red card and two yellows plus a huge number of hairline decisions, referee Pearce, TMO Barnes and their touch judges emerged with great credit.
This was reflected in the unanimous praise given by TV pundits Martin Johnson and Brian Moore plus Welsh pair Jamie Roberts and Sam Warburton who said: “They got all the key decisions right.”
This timeline breaks the match down incident by incident from an officiating perspective.
5.00 Pearce set the tone for the kind of fast-flowing match with which he is becoming synonymous by playing three advantages during a French attack.
5.00 Barnes was called into action for the first time to adjudge the French pack held up. Again a standard was set when a lot of conversation took place without stopping the match. Pearce also used a few words of French to Matthieu Jalibert as the home no.10 kicked to the corner.
5.08 No doubt World Rugby’s referee manager Joel Jutge issued behind-the-scenes instructions following Josh Adams’ try for Wales against England. On that occasion referee Pascal Gauzere allowed Dan Biggar to restart play before first checking that England were ready after the official had instructed Owen Farrell to pass on a general warning. Pearce therefore asked Wales: “Are you happy to play?” before restarting the clock.
5.40 France went to the corner and after allowing play to continue following a suspiciously crooked line-out throw, Pearce got in a superb position to award Romain Taofifenua’s try.
France came FLYING out the traps! ?
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 20, 2021
9.28 Barnes was back in action to rule out a possible Gareth Davies try. Pearce called it held up in real time, perhaps helped by Davies making a second attempt to ground the ball.
11.05 Dan Biggar scored for Wales after a long spell of close-range pressure which included two penalty advantages. “I like how Luke Pearce is letting the game flow and using both languages” former England hooker Moore said in commentary.
15.30 Antoine Dupont, who previously scored France’s second try, was hurried by Pearce to use the ball from the base of a ruck. This approach was consistently applied throughout the match and as a result the tempo never dropped.
17.57 More really athletic movement around the goal-line allowed Pearce to award a try to Ken Owens, who reached to place the ball on the line.
21.00 “Nine let’s go” Pearce instructed Davies as he paused to find some kicking cover at the base of a ruck. “Luke Pearce is refereeing this so well, he’s making it a really fast game,” Jonathan Davies advised the BBC audience.
24.34 Replacement Swan Rebbadj conceded France’s first penalty when he was caught on the wrong side on the ground. The turnaround in les Bleus’ discipline since the arrival of Shaun Edwards has been a key feature of their rapid development.
28.17 Liam Williams knocked on while trying to recover a pass thrown behind him. Pearce called it very differently to the view Gauzere controversially took of a similar incident three weeks earlier.
30.10 The match’s sixth scrum is the first not to complete at the first time of asking. France’s penalty ended up being the sole set-piece award. Pearce got the front rows well balanced and engaging from a comfortable distance at a good tempo.
31.05 Pearce opted not to reward France when the next scrum also went down but the hosts soon won a penalty for a high tackle. The referee made no attempt to play advantage as is usual with incidents that may provoke retaliation.
|Quarter 1||Quarter 2|
|Pens against France||0||1|
|Pens against Wales||2||3|
The camera caught France captain Charles Ollivon in conversation with Pearce as the teams came out of the tunnel for the second half.
Having conceded only a single penalty but also finished second best on the gain-line the BBC’s half-time punditry focused on whether les Bleus should push the referee’s tolerance levels harder during the second period.
It is likely that a similar conversation – regarding possible changes to the patterns of play – took place in the officials’ changing room.
42.40 “OK let’s go,” Pearce encouraged both packs who formed a scrum too slowly for his liking. He then shared a relaxed smile with Tomos Francis who clearly responded.
45.04 After playing a long advantage Pearce went back for a midfield offside penalty which appeared to be called in by TJ Ridley. Biggar kicked Wales ahead 20-17.
47.09 Pearce was advised by Barnes that a possible earlier high tackle was in fact legal. He continued to communicate strongly by telling Ollivon: “We checked it and there’s nothing clear for us on review.”
“It’s a great example of the officials working in tandem so we don’t have to stop for it,” said Moore.
49.24 Josh Adams claimed a try for Wales after Justin Tipuric’s superb chip ahead was hacked on then recovered on the ground.
Having ascertained that neither touch judge could assist, Pearce then asked Barnes to check whether everyone was onside, if there was a knock-on and to confirm the grounding which he believed was good.
The TMO ruled the try good since “It is not clearly held up so I cannot overrule your onfield decision.”
TRY STANDS! ???????
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 20, 2021
However, a careful study of the replay showed Tomos Williams ahead of Tipuric’s original kick. The replacement scrum half was not immediately involved when Adams subsequently hacked ahead, but does then subsequently recover the ball to feed the try-scorer.
In this Six Nations a number of players have been given offside advancing ahead of the kicker – to the letter of the law Barnes’ decision was incorrect.
50.55 “Taken back in Matthew,” Pearce advised Carley as Dupont prepares to kick from the base just inside his own 22. It is unusual for a referee to assist his TJ in this way, but an excellent example of teamwork between the onfield officials.
52.36 “Get the water-carriers off, no-one’s going to go quick,” Pearce advised the players after France won a penalty for a ‘no-arms’ tackle. This again underlined there would be no repeat of the Cardiff incident.
57.55 Wales’ props led a lineout drive which made eight metres before Mohamed Houas entered the side of the maul to stop it. Playing with advantage Wales moved the ball wide where Louis Rees-Zammit attempted a spectacular mid-air grounding just inside the corner flag.
Ridley’s decision to stay seven metres from the flag behind play left him with an obscured view and therefore unable to make a concrete decision. Pearce initially advised Barnes he saw it as a try and then – showing superb knowledge of the detail of law – told Ollivon: “If it is grounded against the base of the corner flag it is not a try, that is why we have Wayne in the van.”
Louis Rees-Zammit was so close to nailing a brilliant finish!
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) March 20, 2021
The TMO eventually determined this was the case so the try was ruled out.
Pearce then returned to the original offence and told France: “The maul moved a distance at speed so it is a yellow card.” He then told Alun Wyn Jones: “I’m not convinced a try would otherwise have been scored.”
In this situation, law requires the referee to believe a try would ‘probably’ result in order to award a penalty try – this is a straight judgement call.
Biggar’s penalty put Wales 30-20 ahead.
62.12 Pearce played two penalty advantages during a long French attack which ended with a penalty being sent to the corner.
63.33 Barnes was called into action to confirm a decision made by the superbly positioned Carley who believed Julien Marchand was held in goal.
64.40 Wales were penalised for offside five metres from their own line. France again opted for a scrum.
66.49 Brice Dulin scored after two more penalty advantages. However, Barnes intervened and asked Pearce to look at a replay of a previous ruck clear-out on Wyn Jones.
“Red one is competing for the ball and he is removed by the hand of blue five which is around his head,” Barnes told Pearce as they watched a replay.
“I am already playing advantage against red five,” Pearce replied to Barnes, “So that neck grab comes while I’m playing advantage.”
The relevance of this was that were the subsequent French offence technical, the try would have been ruled out but play would have returned for a penalty to the hosts for the first infringement.
However, since Barnes then advised Pearce that the second offence was foul play it trumped the first technical offence – meaning play restarted with a penalty to Wales.
At this point the officials were clearly envisaging nothing more than a penalty reverse. But Barnes’ huge experience came to the fore when he insisted on seeing more replays.
“This looks worse than we first thought,” Pearce then stated. “It’s more than a penalty, we’re probably looking at a yellow card.”
— RUGBYcomau (@rugbycomau) March 21, 2021
Again Barnes’ experience proved invaluable as he stressed: “There is contact around the eye area,” which sent a coded message to Pearce that he believed it was worthy of a card but wanted the onfield official to lead the conversation and to consider whether it should be red.
After seeing more replays, Barnes updated: “It is not deliberate but he has got his fingers around the head and they have made contact with the eye area,” and the officials agreed Paul Willemse would be sent off.
The salient point here is that none of the officials believed there was intent to eye gouge – but under current guidelines for contact with the head intent no longer has to be present. In this respect Willemse’s sending off met the same criteria as those of Bundee Aki and Zander Fagerson.
Importantly for what transpired, while dismissing the French lock Pearce also advised Wyn Jones that Wales were under a warning for repeat offending.
68.21 Willis Halaholo was penalised for being offside in front of a kick – the offence missed earlier.
70.54 Ollivon was held in goal with Pearce playing advantage. Taulupe Faletau was shown a yellow card for his team’s repeated infringements. Incredibly this was Wales’ first Six Nations sin-binning in 15 games dating back to 2018.
72.50 Liam Williams was yellow-carded for diving off his feet at the breakdown. France went to the corner.
73.55 Wales were penalised again and Pearce gave Wyn Jones another warning. France opted for a scrum which Pearce repeatedly encouraged them to set. Amazingly, despite being ten points down they seemed in no hurry.
75.00 Wales were penalised at the scrum. France reset it and Ollivon scored a try that Romain Ntmack converted.
The captain who inspired the comeback! ?? ?
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 20, 2021
79.03 As 13-man Wales ran down the clock on halfway, Corey Hill was penalised for going off his feet. This is an offence which officials are instructed to closely monitor as teams attempt to close out games. Ntmack switched the ball prior to kicking to touch which should not have been permitted.
81.34 Dulin’s try clinched the match.
|Quarter 3||Quarter 4|
|Pens against France||4||1|
|Pens against Wales||1||9|
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