The ability to make consistently good decisions under pressure marks out the great from the good in many walks of life.
This was certainly the case in the final game of the Six Nations, but instead of a tight call, officiating error or team trip to a waffle bar being under the spotlight, it was the choice made by French full back Brice Dulin whose 80th-minute brainfade enabled Scotland to break their 22-year Paris hoodoo.
With the Six Nations title on the line, it was entirely unsurprising that World Rugby appointed Europe – and possibly the world’s – leading whistler Wayne Barnes to take charge.
Like players referees have good and less-good days, and when Barnes reviews his performance I suspect he will give himself six or seven out of ten. While there were no Pascal Gauzere style Wales v England howlers, the process by which Barnes made a couple of critical calls is certainly worthy of a second look.
|Quarter 1||Quarter 2||Quarter 3||Quarter 4|
|Pens against France||3||0||6||6|
|Pens against Scotland||3||8||0||4|
Before moving to these specific decisions, we should note that Barnes’ French has developed from odd words into whole phrases, which was certainly helpful on a couple of occasions. A Paris-based refereeing contact of mine helps French officials polish their English ahead of Heineken Cup or international appointments. It seems reasonable to assume this process is mirrored behind closed doors on this side of the channel – witness Luke Pearce’s now impressive command of French – in a development which is as welcome as it is overdue.
Barnes’ extremely comfortable relationship with fellow English Premiership officials Matthew Carley and Tom Foley – respectively touch judge and TMO – also assisted the decision-making flow. In this respect, while Italian touch judge Andrea Piradi did nothing wrong, it would be interesting to know why the officiating team wasn’t completed by a second English touch judge. Could it be that negotiating difficulties in securing the release of key individuals for a match outside the official window weren’t limited to Scottish players?
Use of the TMO
Barnes’ use of TMO Foley to confirm replacement hooker Dave Cherry’s try was flawless, and the correct outcome was reached. What is less clear is whether that was also the case with Duhan Van der Merwe’s first half score.
What cannot be disputed is that the Gloucestershire barrister had a perfect position from which to make the call. He also had no hesitation in awarding the try without seeking confirmation from Foley.
The first score of the game goes to Scotland! ?
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 26, 2021
The key question here relates to a fine point of the tackle law. Once the big Scottish winger’s knees touch the ground the tackle is complete and law requires him to immediately pass, place or release the ball. The act of placing may involve shoulder and arm movement, but not an adjustment to the position of the legs or torso since this second movement unfairly extends a tackled player’s reach.
The slight delay between Van der Merwe being brought to ground and placing the ball is generally considered acceptable since a tackled player often has to first adjust his grip on the ball.
“Not a problem,” we heard Barnes tell France, “he didn’t go again.” The official then added: “It was grounded then placed.”
The biggest challenge for the referee when lots of bodies surround the tackled player is spotting the grounding. In this respect, the angle at which Van der Merwe fell helped Barnes while viewing the bottom half of his body became more difficult. A reverse angle TV replay subsequently suggested that a second movement of the legs took place.
This angle should have been immediately available to Foley who also had the power to intervene without invitation in a decision relating to a try award. Presumably the TMO therefore considered too little evidence existed to overturn the on-field call?
This is all speculation, but what is clear is that last week’s brilliant France v Wales display from referee Pearce and TMO Barnes was built on clear communication and clarity of process. A week later this was missing – and as a consequence the viewing TV audience and the French team were left with unanswered questions.
Damian Penaud Try exposes a loophole
With the game in the balance at 13-10 Damian Penaud claimed a quite brilliant chip-and-chase try which Romain Ntmack narrowly failed to upgrade from a wide angle.
As the French winger stooped to recover the ball on the Scottish line he was clearly tackled early and without the ball by corner-flagging Scottish scrum half Ali Price before recovering to touch down.
Penaud can play! ? ??
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 26, 2021
Barnes consulted Foley to check grounding before awarding the try. He also advised Scotland that should Penaud have failed to ground the ball he would “be going under the sticks” to award a penalty try.
We therefore had an entirely counter-intuitive situation that saw France denied a penalty try because Penaud had not knocked on. When the conversion was missed seven points became five.
Although Price’s illegal intervention and the Clermont winger’s recovery and touch down all happened in a split second, in effect advantage was being played following the infringement. But since nothing tops the award of seven points why go to the TMO to check the grounding rather than deal with the earlier foul play?
We should also consider law states that the referee should yellow card any player who concedes a penalty try through an act of foul play rather than a technical offence. This would therefore have seen Scotland reduced to 14 for ten potentially crucial minutes.
The answer lies in the wording of law eight.
A penalty try is awarded between the goal posts if foul play by the opposing team prevents a probable try from being scored, or scored in a more advantageous position. A player guilty of this must be cautioned and temporarily suspended or sent off.
Penaud was neither prevented from scoring nor from scoring closer to the posts. On this basis Barnes could only award the seven-pointer if he failed to ground the ball. Since the recent addition of a compulsory yellow card had made the penalty try award doubly punitive, the way in which officials handle this type of situation clearly needs reviewing as does the loophole in law which it has created.
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