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Ref Watch: Wales v Fiji - TMO saves referee Nic Berry's blushes

By Paul Smith
Nic Berry was grateful to TMO Stuart Terheege (Photo by Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images)

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Prior to this weekend only English rugby anoraks would have known the name Stuart Terheege, but he deserves plenty of plaudits for his role in Wales’ scrappy win over Fiji.

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The long-time Premiership touch judge spent his Sunday afternoon in a TV van outside the Principality Stadium in Cardiff from where he provided TMO assistance to Australian whistler Nic Berry.

And World Rugby must be extremely thankful that the experienced Brummie was on hand to stop a couple of real howlers, both of which could have materially changed the outcome of the match.

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In case anyone has forgotten, former top-level scrum half Berry was the target of Rassie Erasmus’ ire following the opening Lions test against South Africa.

Three months and more have passed since that fateful day, but we are still yet to discover the outcome of the hearing into Rassie’s infamous 62-minute video critique of Berry’s display which was leaked via Twitter.

Re-reading my Ref Watch column, which was written prior to the appearance of the video, my eye is drawn to “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.”

It seems not much has changed in the intervening period, since Berry still seems short of gravitas and onfield presence. Compare his manner and management style with Nigel Owens, Wayne Barnes, Ben O’Keefe, Luke Pearce or Matthew Carley and you see chalk and cheese.

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While every referee must be true to their own personality and style they also must exude confidence and presence rather than giving off the overly laid-back air which typified Berry’s approach to this match.

Eroni Sau Red Card

Of course, being accurate also helps and had Terheege not intervened, Eroni Sau’s 24th minute red card which tipped this match in Wales’ favour, would not have been awarded.

The Fijian left winger had completed a tackle on Johnny Williams but then went back in for a second time with a swinging arm to the Welsh centre’s head.

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Terheege drew Berry’s attention to the offence, and one replay was enough for watching TV pundit Ben Kay to comment: “I can’t see any other option (than a red card).”

However, in a rabbit-in-headlights moment, Berry appeared to lose clarity on the sequence of events and become overly focused on Williams’ position on the ground providing enough mitigation for him to only award a yellow card.
At this point Terheege intervened with a major dose of clarity.

“Consider one thing – the initial tackle was already made by Fiji no.11. This is a secondary action,” he said.

A brief pause followed while Berry digested this input before he regained his composure and found the correct answer.

“It’s a secondary effort which he didn’t need. He’s made direct contact with the head with force. I guess we’re on red for that.”

Cue a huge sigh of relief from World Rugby’s Dublin HQ…

In touch or in play?

There were two tight calls to make regarding players jumping to keep the ball in play and the officials eventually got both correct.

The first of these saw Fiji’s scrum-half Frank Lomani start off the field before jumping to catch a Welsh kick which had crossed the plane of touch then landing back on the pitch. Sam Warburton hesitated in the summariser’s chair, before admitting he needed to check the law. On field play correctly continued.

Around 15 minutes later Louis Rees-Zammit was at the centre of a more controversial moment as he started off the field, jumped and tapped the ball down to Taine Basham before landing still in touch. Play continued and the Gloucester flier eventually got on the end of a flowing move to claim a try until Terheege again intervened.

As an ex-touch judge, no-one in the ground would have better knowledge of this law than Sunday’s TMO. Having gone through the RFU training some years ago, I remember everything related to touch being drilled into those present. Interestingly, the use of referees on the touch line in internationals therefore lessens the available pool of knowledge and experience among the onfield team in this area.

Law 18 relating to touch has been amended in recent times in an attempt to simplify matters. Whether this has been achieved is debatable, but the changes have certainly widened the playing area – with the corner post, for example, now being in play rather than in touch.

In this scenario, the officials have to consider whether the ball has crossed the plane of touch and where the player who touches or catches it takes off and lands.

In this instance, had Rees-Zammit landed in play, as Lomani did, play would have continued and his try would have stood.

Equally, had the ball not crossed the plane of touch, regardless of where the winger landed play would have continued because he tapped rather than caught the ball.

Replays were not 100 per cent conclusive, but on balance of probability Rees-Zammit was so far in touch that the ball was in all likelihood also on the ‘wrong’ side of the whitewash from a Welsh perspective and following the TMO intervention the correct call was made.

Rees-Zammit’s match-clincher

The TMO was also called into action to determine whether Wales’ left-winger had scored the 73rd minute try which effectively sealed the win.

Berry again did his reputation no favours by asking Terheege to check whether the scorer was onside. He quickly received a response confirming a player cannot be offside chasing his own kick!

Grounding was a tougher question to resolve – and to his credit the Aussie referee was very clear on this and correct in his understanding of law and the supporting definitions.

Contrary to what many on social media believe, it is not necessary for a player grounding a loose ball to have control of it. He must, however, have downward pressure with his torso, hands or arms.

In addition, a recent clarification has been introduced to deal with exactly this situation – the grounding of a loose ball which is also bouncing above the turf. It was in this context that Terheege and Berry both referenced there being no visible ‘separation.’

Put another way, the grounding player’s hand must be in continuous contact with the ball from the instant he first touches it to the moment downward pressure is first applied and if any gap appears a knock-on is called.

Since there was no such separation and downward pressure followed the try was correctly awarded.

Breakdown Offsides

Twice in the match Berry allowed players who were seemingly way offside to come round and steal the ball at the base of the breakdown.

When questioned, on both occasions he said the ball was out of the breakdown and therefore the offside line was no longer present.

Having looked at these calls in slo-mo I believe he got both correct since the players came from onside positions at a point when players were no longer bound over the ball.

As a ref it is easy to get fixated on the scrum-half here, and focus entirely on the point when he lifts the ball from the ground. However, this only applies when he is entering a breakdown to dig possession out – in this instance the breakdown is over and providing everyone is onside and the scrum-half is not played without the ball play should continue.

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