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The real ref talking points at the RWC haven't been high tackles

Former ref Paul Smith upacks the biggest officiating talking points at the RWC, and they’re not what many thought they’d be.

In the run-up to Japan 2019 few pundits had much doubt about the likely major talking point of the early pool matches.

Forget ‘which France will turn up?’ Never mind the scandalous under-funding of the Pacific Islands. Disregard Bob Dwyer’s four-yearly ‘cheating England’ rant.

Instead make ready a few miles of newsprint for a ferocious debate between proponents of the law makers’ tackle safety campaign and a load of 50-something rugger buggers screaming that the game’s gone soft.

And what would trigger this? A rash of red cards for tackles which failed to meet the exacting standards laid down by the latest World Rugby directives.

But seven games into rugby union’s showpiece tournament, these predictions have proved as accurate as the weather forecast which had Scotland and Ireland battening down the hatches and being awarded a nil-nil draw.

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To date only one high tackle debate has raised its head (or more accurately smashed a shoulder into the unfortunate Peceli Yato’s jaw).

How English TMO Rowan Kitt failed to spot Aussie winger Reece Hodge’s misdemeanour is a mystery to all of us, although the speed and angle of the excellent Yato’s break give referee Ben O’Keefe and his touch judges some real-time exoneration. Suffice to say, even if England fail to qualify, Mr Kitt is unlikely to be required in the Yokohama International Stadium on Saturday November 2.

Instead, and who would have thought it, the biggest talking point of the first three days revolves around an issue as old as the game itself – midfield offside.

Pinching a few yards behind the referee’s back has of course always been something of an art form in the sport’s lower levels.

But the arrival, around 15 years ago, in the sport’s higher echelons of a team-of-three armed with radio communications should have seen this particular problem disappear alongside the four-point try and white laces.

Simply put, the referee now has eyes in the back of his head.

However, as France replacement Louis Picamoles’ crucial – and potentially match-turning – interception from a clearly offside position against Argentina showed, the official’s 20/20 vision is more concept than reality.

Keeping midfield defenders onside at the breakdown is some way down a referee’s list of priorities:

Is the tackle legal? Has the tackler released the ball-carrier? Has he moved away? Has the ball-carrier played the ball? Are arriving players on their feet and entering ‘through the gate?’ Has a ruck formed? Are any jackallers competing legally? Is the scrum half being held without the ball? Are the guards onside? And how do I keep out of the way of the next phase of play?

The touch judges therefore have primary responsibility for keeping the midfield defence onside – and are ideally positioned to do so.

According to law, defenders must remain behind the hindmost foot of the breakdown until the attacking scrum half has lifted the ball from the ground – hands on is not enough.

This split-second timing can be problematic for the touch judge when play is in the middle of the field, or his/her view is obscured. Most officials therefore err on the side of caution so we can disregard TV freeze frames showing defenders to be a couple of feet offside. However, Picamoles was around three metres beyond the hindmost foot.

What is less widely known is that touch judges are discouraged from making too many interventions on the ref mike. More than four or five verbal contributions per half is likely to see the official marked down by the assessor – and this certainly plays a part in obvious offsides going unpunished.

In addition, keeping the penalty count low is a big motivational factor for ambitious referees seeking a reputation as an unfussy official often in charge of free-flowing matches. Blowing multiple midfield offsides fed in by the touch judge is clearly at odds with this objective – and career-minded referees have therefore been known to simply turn a deaf ear.

While no-one will be badly injured due to midfield offside, matches are regularly ruined as an entertainment form. Since rugby union has only one showcase every four-years, spectacle is everything. In the cause of developing our sport it is therefore time to free up the touch judges and punish those referees who choose to ignore them.

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The real ref talking points at the RWC haven't been high tackles