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The in-house refereeing contest that's about to play out before our eyes

By Paul Smith
Referee Wayne Barnes looks at a TMO decision during the Six Nations Rugby match between Ireland and Scotland at Aviva Stadium on March 19, 2022 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

As aficionados of UK daytime TV doubtless already know, Fifteen to One was a popular Channel Four quiz show in the 1980’s and 90’s which enjoyed a second lease of life between 2014 and 2019.

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And following the announcement of the refereeing appointments to the 2023 Six Nations, this is exactly the scenario faced by the world’s top officials as they enter a year in which the last man standing fulfils a lifelong ambition by taking the whistle at the World Cup final at the Stade de France on October 28th.

Like players, the sport’s top referees have one eye focused on appearing at the tenth Rugby World Cup for a couple of seasons prior to the event. Whistlers striving to impress those in power at World Rugby have three international windows each year in which to push their case for inclusion.

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The 2023 Six Nations is the last leg in this journey and the competitive nature of getting selected for this year’s World Cup is underlined by that fact that – for the first time in memory – unless injury or illness intervenes, all 15 Six Nations matches will be handled by a different referee.

In 2021 around 70 internationals involving at least one Six Nations or Rugby Championship nation were played in which 19 referees shared whistling duties.

Twelve months later the retired Romain Poite and Pascal Gauzere were replaced at the top table by England’s Christophe Ridley and Italy’s Andrea Piardi which meant once again 19 officials took charge of the 60-odd internationals involving at least one ‘top ten’ nation.

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Players remonstrate with the referee Christophe Ridley /PA
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Neither of these latecomers have made the 2023 Six Nations starting grid, while Ireland’s Frank Murphy and Brendon Pickerill of New Zealand who took charge of two ‘top table’ games apiece during 2022 have also missed the latest cut.

If a subliminal message needed sending – and eight months from a World Cup it probably didn’t – the four names absent from that shortlist of 15 already know they will either be watching France 2023 in the company of a touch flag or a beer and a TV set with the rest of us.

But, based on 2015 and 2019, World Rugby will send 12 referees to France 2023 which means three of the men who appear in the Northern Hemisphere’s blue-chip competition over the course of the next couple of months will also miss out.

A pecking order clearly already exists with England’s Wayne Barnes, who is on track for an incredible fifth RWC appearance, and South Africa’s Jaco Peyper who previously whistled at England 2015 and Japan 2019 leading the way.

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In addition, second-time World Cup appearances beckon Australia’s Angus Gardner and Nic Berry, France’s Mathieu Raynal, New Zealand’s Paul Williams and Ben O’Keefe and England’s Luke Pearce, while his countryman Matthew Carley was a touch judge and the nominated reserve referee four years ago.

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This nine-strong group refereed the majority of the highest-profile recent Autumn Series tests – a reasonable indicator of how World Rugby currently views pressure cooker World Cup knock-out stage appointments. Raynal – who now must overcome injury to take his place in the Six Nations – and O’Keefe were also during the previous summer entrusted with the powder keg which the second and third British & Irish Lions tests became.

Should all these 2019 veterans claim a place at the 2023 showcase, only three of the six remaining Six Nations refs will join them. However, there is more to this than simply picking the best-performing 12 since World Rugby must also have one eye on their age profile and not leaving their 2027 refereeing team short of experience. The 2019 and 2015 tournaments both saw five referees make World Cup debuts – should this trend repeat, two of the nine 2019 vets will therefore miss this year’s event.

Looking at the nine 2019 survivors only Barnes and Peyper look bombproof so the remainder will be very focused on delivering a solid Six Nations performance. Based on his low-profile Autumn appointments to Georgia v Uruguay and Spain v Namibia, the man most at risk is Williams – for me one of the standout performers at Japan 2015 – who takes charge of the Round One Calcutta Cup clash.

Barnes Springboks fallout
(Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Of the six refs seeking to progress from this year’s Six Nations to a first World Cup, Georgia’s Nika Amashukeli appears the rising star having handled Ireland’s meeting with South Africa in the autumn on the back of a Rugby Championship appearance and appointment to South Africa v Wales last summer.

Ireland’s Andrew Brace also appears to be a referee whose career is heading the right way with recent appointments including Australia’s clashes with New Zealand and England.

This leaves England’s Karl Dickson – for whom the recent Owen Farrell controversy has come at the worst possible moment – New Zealand’s James Doleman, Mike Adamson from Scotland and Australia’s Damon Murphy in a closely-contested race for whatever spots remain.

While four Englishmen, three Kiwis and three Aussies take charge of a 2023 Six Nations game, there is plenty of precedent for multiple refs from one country making the World Cup squad – for example France provided four of the 2019 line-up.

Looking further ahead, history tells us that it is extremely unlikely that the final referee will be someone making his World Cup debut; in all probability the four referees retained for the knock-out stages will include a maximum of one new boy.

From a vantage point eight months distant from the tournament, it seems very likely that Barnes and Peyper will fill two of the knock-out stage spots alongside two of Raynal, O’Keefe and Berry.

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A quick look at their Six Nations appointments backs this up, with Barnes lined up for defending champions’ France’s trip to Dublin, Raynal handed the traditionally fiery Wales v England clash, O’Keefe taking charge of France’s trip to Twickenham while Berry and Peyper are at the helm for the competition’s closing round when France host Wales and Steve Borthwick’s team visit the Aviva Stadium.

Of course, events can then take over, as we saw in Japan when Nigel Owens was injured during the semi-finals while Barnes and Peyper were ruled out of the final when England and South Africa qualified. This left Garces – a veteran of the 2015 semi-final – to finish his career on the highest stage. Could Barnes’ stellar 100-cap career end the same way? Watch this space…

ROUND 1
Wales v Ireland
Referee: Karl Dickson (Eng)
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner (Aus), Luke Pearce (Eng)
TMO: Tom Foley (Eng)

England v Scotland
Referee: Paul Williams (NZ)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (NZR), James Doleman (NZ)
TMO: Brendon Pickerill (NZ)

Italy v France
Referee: Matthew Carley (Eng)
Assistant Referees: Nic Berry (Aus), Jordan Way (Aus)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wal)

ROUND 2
Ireland v France
Referee: Wayne Barnes (Eng)
Assistant Referees: Matthew Carley (Eng), Jordan Way (Aus)
TMO: Brendon Pickerill (NZ)

Scotland v Wales
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ire)
Assistant Referees: Frank Murphy (Ire), Chris Busby (Ire)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ire)

England v Italy
Referee: James Doleman (NZ)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (Fra), Tual Trainini (Fra)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (Fra)

ROUND 3
Italy v Ireland
Referee: Mike Adamson (Sco)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (Eng), Craig Evans (Wal)
TMO: Marius Jonker (SA)

Wales v England
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (Fra)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace (Ire), Pierre Brousset (Fra)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ire)

France v Scotland
Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
Assistant Referees: Karl Dickson (Eng), Andrea Piardi (Ire)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wal)

ROUND 4
Italy v Wales
Referee: Damon Murphy (Aus)
Assistant Referees: Karl Dickson (Eng), Chris Busby (Ire)
TMO: Joy Neville (Ire)

England v France
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (NZ)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (SA), Andrea Piardi (Ita)
TMO: Brett Cronan (Aus)

Scotland v Ireland
Referee: Luke Pearce (Eng)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (Eng), Christophe Ridley (Eng)
TMO: Stuart Terheege (Eng)

ROUND 5
Scotland v Italy
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
Assistant Referees: Matthew Carley (Eng), Craig Evans (Wal)
TMO: Brett Cronan (Aus)

France v Wales
Referee: Nic Berry (Aus)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace (Ire), Christophe Ridley (Eng)
TMO: Joy Neville (Ire)

Ireland v England
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (NZ), Pierre Brousset (Fra)
TMO: Marius Jonker (SA)

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