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Ref Watch: Wayne Barnes' seismic Andrew Porter call

By Paul Smith
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Ireland made history by completing a first series win in New Zealand in the most pressurized of environments – to which the cool head and precision accuracy of Wayne Barnes were ideally suited.

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The veteran Englishman, who took charge of his 99th test match – and third between the All Blacks and Ireland – certainly stepped up to the big occasion to provide a strongly-managed performance in which his usual clarity of decision-making was again very much to the fore.

While Jaco Peyper, Angus Gardner. Paul Williams and Ben O’Keefe all have a good chance of still being around with a whistle in their hand when next year’s World Cup reaches its latter stages, providing England are not involved, for me Barnes is currently a sure-fire pick to take charge of the final.

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The Big Call
This test match, the series and quite possibly New Zealand coach Ian Foster’s job hinged on the 50th minute decision which eventually saw Ireland loose head Andrew Porter shown a yellow card for a head-on-head tackle on Brodie Retallick.

With the hosts throwing everything at Ireland in an effort to get back into contention, TMO Tom Foley drew Barnes’ attention to a tackle that had left the Kiwi lock receiving treatment for a facial injury.

“Green no.1 makes direct head-to-head contact” Foley advised Barnes before showing him the replay.

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The man in charge proceeded to explain how he saw the incident with a stage-by-stage commentary before checking that Foley – who will already have viewed several replays before bringing the incident to Barnes’ attention – agreed with his interpretation.

“Number one is upright, so we have got foul play,” he began. “It is an absorbing tackle, not a dominant tackle, there is no mitigation, I have a yellow card, do you agree?”

When the TMO concurred, Ireland’s prop was sent to the bin for ten minutes.

As was pointed out by Conor Mcnamara in commentary, the difference between this incident and the one which saw All Black prop Angus Ta’avo red carded seven days earlier was microscopic.

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Knowing this, master communicator Barnes made sure that he clearly put the words “absorbing tackle not dominant tackle” into the public domain via the ref mike, to provide defence against the inevitable criticism of lack of consistency which will follow.

Referees are in a really difficult position at the moment, as World Rugby’s head contact protocols require them to make judgements on incidents which are – as Eddie Jones pointed out in the week – essentially accidents.

There was clearly no foul play intent present in either tackle, but both players put themselves at risk of being carded by failing to bend into the tackle. This ‘reckless’ approach is what the current interpretation of the regulations seeks to curtail.

Given that Retallick was unable to continue, we can presumably safely assume that a level of force was involved despite the fact that Porter was going backwards when the contact was made.

Was Barnes correct to downgrade to a yellow? Was Peyper correct to show red? For me, under the existing protocol the incidents were so similar that the outcome had to be identical – a red card.

However, the finest of margins separates them, and I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Jones’ assessment that World Rugby need to find a path through the huge head contact muddle caused by their efforts to improve safety so we can get back to referees dealing with foul play that involves intent.

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Management
There is so much which aspiring officials can take from Barnes’ approach, but without doubt it is his firm but approachable manner which tops the list.

His default mode is extremely relaxed, but on the rare occasion that a player went beyond what he deems to be acceptable, Barnes instantly ups the ante and stamps his authority.

This was very evident in the second quarter when he could clearly hear Porter shouting at him from a distance of around 15 metres while a lineout was forming.

Barnes made a point of stopping the game then walking slowly between both sets of forwards.

“If you want to stand and shout at me I’ll penalise you,” Ireland’s loose head was reprimanded.

“I’ll deal with the gap please.”

Clarity
Barnes’ approach has several tiny elements to it which are extremely clever since they underline his authority and by doing so build player confidence in him.

He is also fully aware that the ref mike allows him to speak to a wider audience and explain what is going on.

When a touch-finder rolled around adjacent to the replacements without the ball making human contact he proactively called: “Ball live,” then once it had been touched – or later in the game when a lineout formed – he advised: “Ball not live.”

Should either side attempt a quick throw it will then be no surprise and there will be less frustration when he whistles to stop play.

In similar vein, in the second half when a loose ball emerged from a tackle and made contact with Tadgh Furlong’s foot as he retreated Barnes quickly told us: “Play on, it’s open play, no offside.”

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Pens against Ireland2224

This week’s homework

After the errors made by last week’s officiating team in the wake of the All Blacks simultaneously losing two tight head props to cards, it was very clear that this week’s group had gone through the decision-making tree which assists when the spectre of uncontested scrums arises.

When New Zealand replacement prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi left the field for an HIA early in the second half having recently replaced home no.3 Nepo Laulala, Barnes immediately checked with the fifith official to ascertain that Laulala had been substituted tactically rather than removed due to injury.

Had the latter been the case, he would not have been eligble to return to the field and uncontested scrums would have resulted.

Since Laulala clearly had his leg heavily strapped during the first 40 minutes, he almost certainly departed with a minor leg injury – but providing the All Blacks management on the sidelines officially listed his departure as being tactical that is how it will be treated.

Teamwork
An all-English team worked well together and this smooth communication flow was at times very helpful to the flow of the game.

Ireland’s first try, for example, came from a lineout which followed a penalty called in by TJ Karl Dickson who spotted Sam Cane’s off-the-ball tackle on Josh van der Flier.

What’s in a Name?
Plenty of rugby watchers dislike referees using players’ Christian names, but Barnes does it with effortless ease and to my eyes to the benefit of all involved and without reducing his authority.

When needing to catch attention, especially in general play, Barnes is extremely natural when switching to first-name terms.

“Stay behind Aaron,” he warned New Zealand’s no.9, then later as the hosts sought to restart quickly “Jordie: Whenever you’re ready.”

However, when speaking to the captains, or communicating with the TMO it reverts to “Black no.7 or Green no.3.”

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