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Ref Watch: Why 'too picky' Matthew Carley is on to a winner

By Paul Smith
Referee Matthew Carley in action during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby match between Wales and France at Principality Stadium (Photo by Ian Cook - CameraSport via Getty Images)

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The business end of the 2022 Six Nations is upon us and it is no coincidence that World Rugby has upped the refereeing ante through the appointment of some of its leading officials.

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After a spell during which France had four of the world’s top referees, English officiating is currently enjoying a strong spell with Wayne Barnes being joined in the upper echelons of the international game by Matthew Carley and Luke Pearce both of whom saw Six Nations action this weekend.

Wales v France
Carley, aged 37, who has been operating in the English Premiership since 2013 and whistling Tier One international games since 2016 was a touch judge in the 2019 World Cup. Since then, his repeated exposure to top-level contests suggests he is on course to be one of the elite 12-strong group who referee in France 2023.

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Each time I see (and hear) Carley I am struck by his similarity to Barnes. Both believe in getting the detail right and are not afraid to intervene in the early stages of a game if they are not getting the response they seek from the players.

Carley’s clear, calm management and communication is something which relative newcomers to top-level refereeing (including fast-tracked ex-players such as Karl Dickson, Mike Adamson and Frank Murphy) could learn plenty from.

Perhaps my only criticism in this respect is that unlike Barnes and especially Pearce, Carley made no attempt to converse with les Bleus in French. While plenty of the visiting players have fluent English by making an attempt to speak in French the referee is sending a subliminal message that he is doing everything in his power to be impartial.

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Pedantic maybe, but effective
Two first half scrums and one lineout ended with free kicks being awarded for technical offences – early engagement, early push and closing the gap – and as a result Carley was criticised in commentary for being “too picky.”

What TV pundits and social media critics perhaps don’t fully grasp is the importance to the referee of setting standards and establishing ground rules. Stopping the game to give set-piece free kicks may be frustrating to those hoping for a free-flowing spectacle, but they overlook that top-level players often take a mile when given an inch.

Carley will, during midweek meetings and his pre-match briefing of the forwards, explain how he referees scrum engagement, sets and maintains the lineout ‘gap.’ Come match day, if he then turns a blind eye to these admittedly minor infringements, it is almost certain that bigger problems subsequently ensue as the players attempt to ‘fix’ the issues themselves.

Players understandably find nothing more frustrating than a referee who fails to follow through on his pre-match words. Having been told to expect a particular approach they will prepare with this in mind and to subsequently find an aspect of the contest approached in a different way is far from ideal. Carley is very definitely not guilty of taking this approach.

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The scrum stats from France’s win over Wales underline how effective Carley’s approach proved. There were 16 scrums in the game only four of which required a reset. In addition, after awarding two early free kicks and a penalty to France, the man in charge had no need to intervene in the final eight scrums of the match.

Anorak Corner
There were two interesting and slightly obscure points of law during the match which merit further explanation.

France’s quick throw-in
Following a raking Dan Biggar kick, France fielded the ball just outside their own 22 and immediately fired a quick angled throw-in to Melvyn Jaminet, who from a position inside his 22, found a good touch inside the Wales half.

In law, a quickly-taken throw is not required to be straight and may be taken at any point between the line of touch (where a formed lineout would take place) and the throwing team’s goal-line.

However, because the line of touch was in this instance outside France’s 22, the quick throw put the ball back into the 22. Under a law change introduced a few years ago, the kicking team cannot then gain ground in this scenario unless the ball bounces into touch. Wales were therefore awarded a lineout opposite the point where Ntmack kicked.

France offside in front of the kicker
As the match entered the closing ten minutes, France kicked from inside their own 22 and a player ahead of the kicker was penalised for advancing before being put onside.

In this situation, law gives the non-offending team the option of a kick where the chaser is first offside or a scrum where the ball was kicked – in this case inside the France 22.

Since the laws were changed to give the throw-in following a penalty which is kicked into touch to the non-offending team we rarely see the scrum option taken, however Wales bucked the trend.

Italy v Scotland
Pearce was one of the elite 12 at the last World Cup, and given his progress since must now be eyeing an appointment in the knock-out stages of France 2023.

While his French is developing nicely, there is no evidence of any Italian as yet. Despite this both sets of players seemed to have few difficulties in understanding the 34-year-old whose communication was typically clear and effective.

Italy Yellow Card?
When Pearce reviews his performance, he may look differently at his decision not to show Italy no.8 Toa Halafihi a yellow card late in the first half.

After Scotland broke into the home 22 they won quick ball around ten metres from the Italy line. With supporting numbers available, a try seemed a distinct possibility against broken field defence until Halafihi dived on the ball to kill it as it emerged from the breakdown.

Pearce awarded a penalty and told the home back-rower: “Unless the ball is a metre out you can’t dive on it.”

The key variables here are the incident’s location – within the ‘red zone’ close to Italy’s line – and the attacking possibilities it denied given that numbers and space were available to Scotland.

The fact that this one-metre law interpretation is relatively recent is irrelevant – as an international standard player Halafihi should have a detailed knowledge of law.

Winning hands down
Every now and then something new emerges and we had an interesting example during the first half of this game.

Scotland’s Grant Gilchrist was stood parallel with the back foot of the breakdown, and as Ali Price fed an in-the-pocket Finn Russell the visitors’ lock raised his arms above his head.

“Put your arms down,” Pearce immediately told him, presumably suspecting that Glichrist – who technically was in on offside position since he was in front of the ball – was attempting to obscure Italy’s view of Russell and by doing so was also interfering with play.

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