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World's best referee held back?

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The best referee in the world won't be in charge of a match this weekend - but what does that mean for the World Cup final?

When Nigel Owens and Jérôme Garcès were announced as the referees for this weekend’s World Cup semi-final matches, fans understandably had reservations.

Yes, Owens is one of the best in the business – but where was Wayne Barnes, the man who many consider to now be the top referee in the world?

Barnes hasn’t entirely been left out of proceedings – he has been tasked with running the sidelines for Garcès in Sunday’s match between Wales and South Africa.

The full referee team for Sunday’s game includes Garcès as the head referee, Barnes and Ben O’Keefe as his assistants and Ben Skeen as TMO.

Saturday’s match between England and New Zealand will be controlled by Owens with Romain Poite and Pascal Gaüzère on the sidelines and Marius Jonker in the TMO box.

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Why then, did Garcès get the top job ahead of Barnes?

Looking back at the 2015 World Cup, the referees tasked with handling the final and the 3rd/4th playoff weren’t given full control of proceedings for the semi-finals.

Owens, who refereed the final between New Zealand and Australia, and John Lacey, who handled the bronze decider between South Africa and Argentina, were instead utilised as assistant referees in the week prior.

Notably, Owens, as well as Barnes and Garcès – who handled 2015’s semis – were all given the whistle for the last Word Cup’s quarter-final games too. The other quarterfinal ref, Craig Joubert, came under plenty of his criticism for his performance in the fixture between Australia and Scotland – which probably explains why Lacey was brought in for the final stages of the tournament.

So, what can we glean from all this?

Chances are the four quarterfinal refs would have been given the whistle for the semis, final and 3rd/4th playoff. That means that Wayne Barnes will almost certainly be one of the men in the middle next weekend – in whichever game England aren’t playing in.

Determining the other referee is a bit more difficult. Jaco Peyper’s ‘indiscretion’ (if you can even call it that) may have robbed the South African of a chance to referee on the big stages next week.

That leaves the door open for the likes of Owens and Garcès, but as World Rugby may again choose to bring in a referee who wasn’t handed a major role in the quarter-finals.

If England are in the final and Barnes isn’t selected, however, then it would be a rash move from World Rugby to hand the whistle to someone who wasn’t deemed of one of the four best referees at the World Cup. Errors in the bronze playoff aren’t going to set too many tongues wagging, but a muck-up in the grand final would be disastrous.

Given the above, don’t be surprised to see either Owens or one of the tournament’s French referees take over for the biggest rugby match of the four-year cycle.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was pleased to have Nigel Owens in charge of New Zealand’s quarter-final fixture with Ireland:

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The best referee in the world won't be in charge of a match this weekend - but what does that mean for the World Cup final?