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FEATURE Luke Pearce's refereeing masterclass points the way towards rugby's future

Luke Pearce's refereeing masterclass points the way towards rugby's future
3 months ago

We are sitting at the epicentre of an era of rugby professionalism. Players are conditioned in every aspect of on-field technique, tactical awareness, nutrition, and physical and psychological preparation, and backroom staffs proliferate. Most importantly of all, referees are beginning to view rugby as a professional career.

The average age of match officials is getting dramatically younger. The referees who managed games at the Six Nations – Englishmen Karl Dickson, Luke Pearce, Christophe Ridley and Matt Carley; New Zealanders Paul Williams, James Doleman and Ben O’Keefe; Nic Berry and Angus Gardner from Australia; Frenchman Mathieu Raynal, Italian Andrea Piardi, Andrew Brace of Ireland and Nika Amashukeli from Georgia – collectively averaged in the mid-thirties.

That list contains the names of the best the rugby world has to offer. Raynal promptly retired from international duty at the end of tournament, at the grand old age of 42, following hot on the heels of Wayne Barnes, who stepped back after refereeing the 2023 World Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa, at 44.

Barnes referee <a href=
Rugby World Cup retirement” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Wayne Barnes brought down the curtain on a glittering career by taking charge of last year’s Rugby World Cup final (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Meanwhile Pearce was one of only two referees to be awarded more than one match in the tournament, a sure sign of his burgeoning status as one of the ‘probables’ to replace Barnes as the top official in the global game. Pearce had already set the bar when he became the youngest-ever member of the RFU National Panel at only 21 years old, back in 2009.

He was so fresh-faced at his initiation that his appearance in the Kingsholm changing sheds startled Gloucester’s Tom Voyce. When Pearce entered to check boots and issue guidelines for the game ahead, the wingman thought a student had found his way in there by mistake. In his first season, an angry Coventry supporter threw a punch at Pearce after he had awarded three penalty tries to Moseley during a raucous local Midlands derby. The referee’s reward was a trip to Siberia to oversee the Russian cup final. Fortunately, he returned.

Fifteen years later, refereeing has taken root as Pearce’s vocation, a mainstream profession rather than a part-time afterthought.

Pearce is one of a cadre of young referees in the Premiership embracing the opportunity to power up advances in the game to warp speed. With Wasps, Worcester Warriors and London Irish knocked down like a row of dominoes by financial insolvency, there is every incentive to make rugby as attractive to the average joe as possible.

There are 38 separate infractions at the tackle and post-tackle alone, so the focus is ‘big picture’ rather than penalising technical detail, and driving the game into extinction-by-whistle. As Barnes himself recently observed, “what the lawbook doesn’t contain is an overriding principle which should be: keep the game going by blowing your whistle as little as possible”. That is the tenet the current generation uphold above all else. The caricature of the pompous, preening hair-splitter from the northern hemisphere is old hat.

Ollie Sleightholme embarks on a charge during a terrific Gallagher Premiership encounter between Northampton and Saracens (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In most areas, refereeing in the Premiership has caught up, and in some aspects surpassed, its counterpart south of the equator in ‘keeping the game going’. After 13 rounds of the Premiership and five of Super Rugby Pacific, the average number of tries per game, per team is 3.3 in England, and 3.7 in Australia and New Zealand. The average number of rucks built during a game is roughly equivalent [169 to 177], and the number of penalties awarded during a game is the same, at around 20 per match.

The big difference is ball-in-play time, which is also related to the amount of infield kicking. The ball is in play for 38.2 minutes in England, three minutes more than it is in Super Rugby, but the ball is kicked an average of eight times more per game in the northern hemisphere than the south [32 kicks to 24].

There are two areas within this overall framework where top English referees are driving the game. They are forcing teams to kick before it becomes just another set-piece [the notorious ‘caterpillar’-based box-kick], and that makes the kick return more viable as a weapon. They are also refusing to give easy penalties to the defensive side at the breakdown, which renders ball-in-hand attack more attractive.

On Friday evening, Pearce refereed the climactic clash between the Premiership’s top two clubs, Northampton Saints and Saracens. He awarded a paltry 16 penalties in total, and only five of those came in the first half. A review of the penalties awarded by timeline makes for fascinating reading. Pearce blew for just one penalty in the opening 20 minutes, four in the second quarter, five in the third and six in the final 20.

Accepted wisdom is the referee blows early and often to establish the ground rules, but in Pearce’s distribution that theory is turned on its head. Pearce hardly whistled at all in the first half hour, and the game was running at a point per minute. He encouraged freedom of approach first up, and backed the attacking side instead.

Of those 16 penalties, five were awarded for scrum indiscretions, five for offences at the ruck and four for offside. The keynote of those ruck/offside penalties is eight of nine favoured the attacking side. Pearce did not award a single penalty at the breakdown to the defensive team until the 75th minute.

He encouraged turnovers to play through without sanction whenever they occurred, and he gave the benefit of the doubt to the attack when 50/50 pilfers were obtained.



The first clip was one of two examples where Saints’ Courtney Lawes poached the ball at a key moment, only to be on the wrong end of the whistle. Lawes is first to the tackle and then pulled off his feet by a one-arm grab technique by Owen Farrell. Does he get a lift on the ball before losing his balance and falling forward? It is impossible tell for sure, but Pearce stays on the positive side of neutral and rewards the attacker rather than the defender.

In the second clip the same two players are involved, albeit in different roles. Lawes could be penalised immediately for attacking the Saracens scrum-half Ivan Van Zyl before he can play the ball. But Pearce plays through the offence and a short pass from Farrell puts hooker Theo Dan through a gap. That is the referee’s reward for making a positive decision to keep the game going.

Pearce added some significant hurry-up to scenarios when players tend to be buying time to regroup – at reset scrums, injury breaks and on two yellow card decisions which both took less than 30 seconds to asses. When Saints goalkicker Fin Smith was looking to run down the clock by taking the full 90 seconds in front of the posts on a conversion, Pearce prompted him to take the kick with half a minute remaining on the shot clock, to sustain the flow.

The single most significant acceleration was the five-second ‘countdown’ on box-kicks.


Pearce was giving Van Zyl and Northampton counterpart Tom James ‘the fingers’ throughout the game, showing all five as the prelude to a countdown for the kick. He was unafraid to follow through by awarding a scrum to the opponent if the time was exceeded. That meant less time for the dreaded caterpillar to form, less time to measure the kick, less time for the chase to organise.

That insistence had consequences, both direct and indirect.


James was already feeling the pressure to get his ‘boxy’ away when Theo McFarland came off the side of the ruck to block it down and score.

In the second half, that pressure was reflected in a double-barrelled volley at Saints’ exit strategy.



In the first clip, James is again operating under countdown, and a big hole develops right up the middle, between the two wings of the chase for England back three Elliot Daly to exploit on the return. On the very next play, the Northampton nine goes back to an unfamiliar first receiver [Australian full-back James Ramm] for the exit and that too is charged down by England’s Ben Earl.

The Premiership is turning as wild and savage as the Serengeti. In round 13, Bristol thrashed league-leading Northampton 52-21, while Saracens routed bitter London rivals Harlequins 52-7 at Twickenham. When Saints and Sarries clashed at Franklins Gardens, the home side naturally came out ahead in a nine-try thriller, 41-30.

It was no more predictable on Sunday. Bath recovered from a 37-point deficit after 50 minutes at the Stoop to score the next 33 points, and come within four of overhauling Quins at the death.

It is primarily the attitude of the officiating which is creating a climate of creative uncertainty. With Pearce to the fore, the Barnes mantra ‘to keep the game going by blowing your whistle as little as possible’ is leading rugby forward to a more inviting future, for player and spectator alike.

His performance on Friday night was the model template for the younger breed of attack-oriented, career-minded referee, and it deserves all the kudos it receives.


carlos 96 days ago

So I watched this game while riding the bike indoors. I took a rather different interpretation of Pearce from you.

First, his view of the “off-side line” in rucks is rather nebulous. He takes an approach of it being a band which might encompass the last foot in the ruck. The first half, I don’t think he “saw” a single off-sides penalty. Even the try from the blocked kick was sketchy.

Second, I have no explanation to why he did not even have another look at JM Gonzalez obvious hit on the head. The replay clearly showed he was hit high by a player basically standing. Nothing to see there? C’mon! JMG had to leave soon after from wobbly gait. Ridiculous.

Third, he was very harsh on Lawes in the ruck. Twice he penalized him when he was not at fault. Once, he was holding the ball while on his feet. The “cleaner” brought him down and then he was penalized from playing off his feet. Another time, he was told not to compete for a ball in a ruck when there was no ruck formed. A ruck requires two players, one from each team on their feet over the ball. There was NO one from the defense. Only one from the attacking team and Lawes going for the ball.

If his refereeing is counting down from 5 and a few scrum penalties, that doesn’t make him brilliant. During the first half, besides the ruck issue, both teams were rather disciplined, so we can’t give HIM credit for that.

This is going to be once in a blue moon when I will (partially) disagree with you. Grant you, he is not pedantic Dixon….

Mzilikazi 99 days ago

What do think of Craig Evans, from your part of the world, Nick ? I saw him last year refereeing one of the URC games in SA, thought he was very good then. He was one of the RWC refs too ??

Jon 99 days ago

First off, I had heard talk about ruck clock so wanted to watch the game before reading this article. After the first charge down and try I paid a bit more attention to the ruck ball as that try was just caused by a lethargic half and kick. What I noticed is Pearce is not calling the countdown correctly, he only started the clock once the caterpillar started, but Saints were so bad at it they caterpillar was always late. The ball was available before the first dude joined the ruck, and their half went well past the 5 sec clock multiple times.

Now, I don’t know if that is just bad refereeing or a weakness in Saints play that was catching him out constantly. I also thought Pearce was a bit timid after he said he didn’t want to award scrums (that that is a problem, is a problem). I’m not sure if I would have picked up on that from other teams if I wasn’t trying. I also note a Sarries coach pointed out exactly the need to arrive early enough, so I wonder if they were in Pearce’s ear before the game about Saints weakness.

On the article, I’m not sure it changed things much during the game, the 9’s still seemed to get their kicks away fairly well (try example he was right on the money), but I have no comparison not watching other games. It did seem like they were less comfortable. I was more concerned with this two very influential decisions late in the game. I don’t think the yellow should have been penalized at all, the pass was just delayed too long the wrapping arm got in the road. And what was the other, it might have been the immediate following taking out of the defender by the center cut, which caused Sarries wing to come in and leave a hole. Possible one for the tmo that. Enjoyed the conversion hurry up that, its something I’ve seen more and more often down here too, if done better. How did you see his scrum decisions going against the young Italian in his first game back Nick? I noted he let play go on on the far sideline, after he called tackle and no one released, then the ball become free and Saints were able to set and clear. Not too sure that balance is right to be fair, but certainly on the right side.

Game wise it can be tough matching a previous weeks great performance, and they did look a tad off on attack, but I thought the difference in this game was each backlines defence strategy and execution. Rush D missing a few crucial reads versus a nice smothering D, which oddly enough can put a bckline off their timing quite well (eg NZ v Ire). Wouldn’t be surprised to see Sarries dominate the stats other than scrum pens.

Also good to see some positive vibes from the North after BoK got lambasted for his attitude in the World Cup.

Mzilikazi 99 days ago

Good article on referees, and one in particular, and then the analysis on the Saints game. Thanks Nick.

I had not seen the game, so had a look before commenting. The quality of the rugby is just sky high, and the one thing I pick out, in addition to all your points, is how very relaxed Pearce is, always calm, always in control, instructions and responses clear and concise. He is very clearly enjoying his work.

That is one very good Northampton team. They conceded a fair number of turnovers early, but always had the defence to deny any significant advantage to Saracens. The other game I watched on the weekend was Toulouse and Pau, and was very impressed by the quality of rugby in both. The level of ambition very high, passing very accurate a high % of time, wonderful stepping/seam finding ability by players 1 - 15. Just exhilarating rugby to watch. The first try of the game by Pau was a thing of beauty. I would judge the quality of rugby in the Premiership/Top14/URC/Champions Cup is well above where we are in Australia and NZ atm.

Mitch 100 days ago

Another point about this is you’ve got to know your ref and do preparation on him before the game. Luke Pearce has low tolerance for time wasting, so it’s not a good idea to push his buttons in this facet of the game.

JD Kiwi 100 days ago

Great to read a proper review of his performance instead of people moaning about him hurrying up that goal kicking because it was within the time limit. My argument is that the kicker broke the general time wasting law even though he didn't break the shot clock law.

A valid point though is that they should be encouraging more refs to ref this way and teams should know what to expect every week.

Mitch 100 days ago

I support strict policing of the 5 second law, however I question if a scrum, which takes time out of the game itself, is the correct sanction.

Maybe the law should be the ref calls “use it 5” and if the ball hasn't been used after 5 seconds, the ball is deemed to be out, there's no offside line anymore and the yappy little scrum-half is fair game.

Justin 100 days ago

Thing is your “big hole” for Daly to exploit wasn’t created by a delayed set-up and resulting poor chase, it was because of the 6 Saracens players running back in a line to form a screen for the fullback/wing coming forward who then got to pick and chose his channel to run the ball back ensuring the chaser was on the other side of the ball-carrier’s screen. This needs to be stamped out, we’re seeing it in both hemispheres with the screen both preventing a proper contest for the ball and then giving an obstruction benefit to their team.

Shaylen 100 days ago

Luke Pearce is a very good rugby referee. He communicates well with the players and gives precise and concise instructions and information on the field. He applies himself and the laws consistently throughout the game and in many ways thats the hallmark of a top class official in rugby. 38 infractions at tackle and post tackle area is ridiculous. The game needs to be simplified and this area needs a certain amount of deregulation. Having 38 different infractions and a number of different refereeing philosophies from different regions makes the game impossible to follow for new fans and even some old ones. It takes years of watching to truly understand it and even then we question decisions and law application routinely with fierce debate raging long after matches have concluded. Refereees are on a hiding to nothing in this aspect. The premiership is encouraging freedom and showing leniency to attacking teams at the breakdown whilst speeding up the game and this is allowing matches to develop rather than adopting a pedantic approach and stalling the flow. The problem with this is that in a world cup knockout match between two teams from opposing regions and a referee from another region the laws may be applied very differently and players and fans are left frustrated. Rugby needs to simplify the game through simplified laws and adopt consistent refereeing standards and philosophies throughout to truly move away from controversy.

john 100 days ago

If he was the guy who refereed a game in Australia in the last year or two and I think he is, he was bloody good. Streets ahead of southern hemisphere referees.

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