Harlequins’ Gallagher Premiership crushing of Wasps on Sunday afternoon showcased just why Luke Pearce is the rising star of English domestic refereeing and the heir apparent to Wayne Barnes on the world stage. Put simply, it is not coincidental that the 33-year-old official takes charge of very few dull games.
During the upcoming Six Nations, when rugby has its annual five minutes of back-page fame, those who can bring themselves to listen to BBC TV pundits Brian Moore and Jonathan Davies will hear plenty about the significance of the scrum and the tackle zone. Pearce’s interpretation of law in these areas is what sets him out from the crowd and produces game after game of high-tempo, entertaining rugby.
At the scrum he tolerates very little messing about. The forwards are required to pack down quickly, the ball goes in immediately, the scrum half is instructed to “use it” the instant the setpiece stops moving and there are almost no re-sets. Most significantly, this high standard is maintained across the match’s whole duration – and reinforced when six replacements arrive in the final quarter.
Does Pearce get every scrum penalty call correct? Who knows! Apart from ‘font-of-all-knowledge’ Moore very few are able to call the minefield that the scrum has become in the professional era with a high degree of certainty, and in this context total accuracy in decision-making could be considered a secondary issue.
Since front-rowers in a Pearce-officiated match go on the field knowing there will be a swift penalty award rather than a re-set scrum, they also know infringement carries risk – and a ticking off in their Monday debrief. The ref’s clever approach to game management thus reduces scrum failures and goes a long way towards improving the overall quality of the spectacle.
A zero-tolerance approach is also apparent in Pearce’s refereeing of the tackle area. Significantly, his interpretation of law favours the team in possession while allowing defenders very little margin for error – as per the approach taken in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition which came hot-on-the-heels of law directives issued after the 2019 World Cup.
Pearce allows leeway to players going off their feet in support of the ball-carrier providing they are acting positively – to free the ball and bring continuity. By contrast, tacklers must immediately release and move. Admittedly Wasps were without arch-jackler Jack Willis, but it was noticeable how little success either side had in slowing ball at the breakdown and how much attacking space resulted.
Following comments from another TV expert, Austin Healey, Wasps fans on social media got very excited about the amount of time Danny Care was allowed to score his first-half try. This incident looked odd but revolved around an unusual point of law which Pearce (and TMO Stuart Terheege) got absolutely correct.
A superb piece of defence from back-tracking home scrum half Will Porter wrapped up a diving Danny Care after he had crossed Wasps’ try-line. Initially the former England No.9 was held on his back, but with both knees clearly grounded he managed to wriggle loose and ground the ball at the second attempt on the other side of Porter’s body.
This was not an immediate action and would have been penalised had it taken place on the other side of the try line – where incidentally Porter would previously have been required to instantly release his opposite number and allow him to pass, place or release the ball.
However, like a ruck or a maul, an action defined as a tackle can only take place “in the field of play” which a law book diagram identifies as being between the two try lines. Pearce was therefore correct in not refereeing the incident as a tackle, instead describing it as: “a good competition” and in subsequently awarding the try.
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