Ref watch: Four French officials stepped into the spotlight for this weekend’s Six Nations games in Rome and Cardiff – Mathieu Raynal and Pascal Gauzere refereeing with Romain Poite and Alex Ruiz providing TMO support.

And while Raynal and Poite enjoyed a gentle stroll in the sunshine as Italy slipped to a 30th consecutive Six Nations defeat, it may be some time before the dust settles on the officials’ roles in what finished as a comfortable Wales win over England.

Before we dissect some crucial talking points it is probably worth noting that this year’s competition – courtesy of Covid-19 – is something of a throwback in officiating terms.

In the days before World Rugby (or the IRB as it was formerly known) all officials came from the Five Nations – and even wore their own country’s colours. Close your eyes and think back to Clive Norling or Jim Fleming and they were wearing red or blue.

Since the dawn of the professional age, the world’s best officials have travelled the globe and as a result we see plenty of Southern Hemisphere referees in the Six Nations when travel is possible.

On top of this European rugby has in the relatively recent past lost Nigel Owens and Jerome Garces – who respectively took charge of the 2015 and 2019 World Cup finals – plus seasoned Irish officials George Clancy and John Lacey. It is therefore fair to say that the current appointments picture has a very different and much less experienced look.

Wales v England – Josh Adams Try

When Gauzere sees the TV camera angle behind Wales’ posts he will appreciate that while he was correct in law he has made a major game-management error.

When the 43-year-old correctly penalised Owen Farrell on the ground in his own 22 the visitors had shipped five penalties in the opening quarter.

It was therefore entirely reasonable for Gauzere to call the England captain over, issue a warning and instruct: “Have a word with your team please they need to change their behaviour.”

After the clock stopped, the wide-angle camera shows all 15 England players behind their own posts.

Quick-thinking Wales no.10 Dan Biggar – who had the ball – is then heard to request: “Please let me know when time is on” at which point Gauzere should have instantly switched on mentally and realised a quickly-taken penalty was a possibility.

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Since he had stopped the clock and instructed Farrell to call his team in “for a word,” it was now essential that he completed the cycle before restarting the clock by checking his message had been relayed and that England were ready to recommence play.

After all, had England ignored his instructions and remained spread across the field, Gauzere would quite rightly have viewed a yellow card for the captain as an entirely reasonable course of action.

Farrell’s post-try complaints were understandable, but by then the damage was done and there was no going back. This meant the England skipper’s aggressive manner only achieved (based on Gauzere’s body language) in undermining his prospects of having a reasonable communication flow with the official during the remainder of the match.

Wales v England – Game Management

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Owen Farrell reacts to Wales’ loss:

Quarter 1Quarter 2Quarter 3Quarter 4
Pens against Wales3231
Pens against England5234

 

Why England repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot by getting on the wrong side of the referee is an interesting and very relevant question.

Since the last World Cup multiple whistlers have found fault with Jones’s team, and while a reputation can sometimes go ahead of you, some of their infringements are unbelievably brainless.

At 24-all England should probably have gone on to win the match only for the concession of four penalties in eight fourth-quarter minutes to hand Wales field position and three shots at goal.

Gauzere’s application of law was tighter – critics will say more pedantic – than many. For example, he penalised lineout blocking by a lifter three times in the course of the match.

International teams analyse referees to such a degree that they go on the field knowing what to expect – so this really shouldn’t have surprised England to the extent that it did.

But the key point here is that good sides with capable leaders spot trends, communicate and adapt. Can you imagine John Eales, Sam Warburton or Richie McCaw allowing their teams to regularly ship between 15 and 20 penalties or repeatedly commit technical offences?

England’s biggest offender is Maro Itoje who was penalised five times. This is way beyond normal tolerance levels, and when he reviews his performance Gauzere should be asking himself why a player who infringed four times in the opening 27 minutes was neither formally warned nor shown a yellow card.

Wales v England – Liam Williams Try

Unlike the two previous topics, the controversial award of this first-half score is more about interpretation of law.

The pass which reached a flying Louis Rees-Zammit was behind him and after hitting his right hand it rolled down the back of his leg – perhaps straight down or perhaps marginally forward – before rebounding forward from Henry Slade to Liam Williams who regathered and scored.

In real time it looked like a knock-on, and based on Williams’ muted reaction and Rees-Zammit’s frustrated one that was certainly their belief.

The first thing to clarify here is that once Gauzere ruled a try on field, TMO Ruiz had to find clear and obvious evidence with which to overturn this decision – and there was none.

In matches where there is no TMO, this incident is ruled a knock-on 999 times out of 1000 – in fact something similar happens quite regularly at lower levels where handling errors are more common.

Picture a player knocking on then, flashing a frustrated foot at the ball, making contact before it hits the ground and looking hopefully to the referee to see if he interprets his mistake as a kick. Because the player has lost control of the ball very few whistlers will support his optimism!

This drops into a similar category as a number of other recent incidents since law does not specifically deal with it.

Those who read my Round Two column may recall the phrase “A player should not jump into a tackle” is no longer in the law book. Instead the officials had to decide whether Jonny May’s spectacular finish against Italy constituted dangerous play.

A player kicking the ball before it hits the ground after losing control is also not a question to which a law book enquiry produces a direct answer – but based on historic practice is usually ruled a knock-on.

It is also worth noting that Gauzere may well have been unsighted – and in this respect he received no audible assistance from his touch judge who was right on the spot. Had the flag-man called in a knock-on the TMO would never have got involved and no-one watching, including either set of players, would have questioned it.

Given the ever-growing involvement of the man in the TV van, it seems to me that the touch judge has a growingly irrelevant role, but that one is for another day.

Italy v Ireland – Iain Henderson ‘Try’

As Ireland piled early pressure on their hosts, Iain Henderson stretched for the line in a pile of bodies and the ball came loose and was cleared.

At the next stoppage referee Raynal quietened the second row’s suggestion that he had in fact scored a try with the information that TMO Poite had already looked at the incident “in the background.”

However, when ITV produced a slow-motion replay it was immediately obvious that Henderson had control of the ball and had grounded it. Given that Raynal was unsighted (and therefore blameless), this creates immediate questions.

 

The TMO protocol allows intervention in three areas – foul play, to adjudge whether a kick has gone through the posts and to adjudge on try-scoring – so this decision sits squarely in Poite’s remit.

Since the ball remained in play he was unable to stop the game until it next became dead, but at that point surely the incident had to go on the giant screen for Raynal to view?

While initiatives to keep play moving are to be welcomed, since the two-hour rugby match is a much too regular occurrence, getting try-or-no-try decisions correct in an international is surely much more important?

Italy v Ireland – Offsides in Open Play

It was interesting to see the officials twice penalise Italian forwards advancing ahead of being put onside when chasing a long kick.

On neither occasion were they within 40 metres of the ball-carrier, and while they are technically offside as soon as they take a forward step, in practice this has been overlooked for years.

In the second half Reynal also audibly warned Italy’s scrum half Callum Braley not to advance in front of the ball carrier when he was “running a cheat line” ahead of play.

Assuming Reynal has not produced this rabbit out of a hat this is clearly an area in which World Rugby have asked officials to clamp down, and given that it results in increased space it is an initiative to be applauded.

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