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The two crucial calls that benefitted England

REFEREE WATCH: Rugbypass contributor Paul Smith takes a closer look at the officiating during the Six Nations Round Four clashes.


Irish referee Andrew Brace returned to Twickenham for the first time since the Nations Cup final to take charge of the rematch between England and France.

Such was the furore following France’s extra-time defeat in November that the 32-year-old was swapped out from his scheduled Champions Cup appointment in France seven days later.

Thankfully for all concerned he enjoyed a much less fraught afternoon second time round and he should take plenty of positives from his contribution to an outstanding game.

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Maro Itoje Try

Brace was not at the centre of the match’s pivotal officiating moment which came when TMO Joy Neville ruled on Itoje’s match-clinching 76th-minute try.

A rarely-considered aspect of the TMO is the subtle change it has brought to referee positioning. In days of yore, much the best place from which to view a series of close-range forward drives was in goal, whereas – reasoning that the TMO has the reverse angle covered – most whistlers now follow the ball-carrier across the line.


The knock-on effect of this is that a less-well-sighted referee becomes more likely to ask the TMO “try or no try” rather than “is there any reason I cannot award a try?” In the process this places decision-making responsibility squarely in the hands of the man or woman in the van, which in the case of marginal grounding decisions in turn creates a reliance on camera angles.

There were quite a lot of parallels between Itoje’s try and the decision cricket’s third umpire has to make when determining if a low catch has carried. In that scenario the techies often point to the foreshortening effect of a long lens which is generally acknowledged to create additional doubt.

This was the precise problem confronting Neville and in order to overturn Brace’s onfield decision, the former Ireland flank had to find concrete evidence that ball hit turf. To her huge credit she remained completely unflustered and requested a number of different replay angles before making the decision to award the score.

Two Crucial Calls Benefit England

When the officiating team reviews the match, their take on two crucial incidents late in the first half, neither of which drew any comment from TV analysts, would make interesting listening.

With Matthieu Jalibert closing in on Antoine Dupont’s delicate chip behind England’s posts, only a sliding intervention from Henry Slade prevented a try. The ball ended up going over the dead ball line – but was it as a result of a deliberate knock-out by the Exeter centre’s hand?


Even though the ball went backwards, if his action was deemed deliberate it was illegal and a penalty try and yellow card would have resulted. In looking at this we have to remember that a one-handed knock-on is these days deemed deliberate if the offender has no prospect of holding on to the ball, so the same logic must apply.

Since this related to a try award, the TMO had every right to get involved – and of course, Neville may have considered at the incident in the background and judged there was no case for Slade to answer – but in real time it certainly seemed to merit a second look.

While the jury is out on this one, there is very little doubt that Brace got a crucial call wrong a minute before the break. With France pounding the home line, Tom Curry won a penalty in contact to end an attack which seemed certain to produce a try.

Law requires the tackler to release the ball-carrier prior to competing for the ball – even if the defender has remained on his feet. Curry clearly stayed in contact at all times, and as such the visitors should have been awarded a penalty and three easy points, which with the benefit of hindsight would have proved vital.

England’s Discipline

Much has been made – in a classic Eddie Jones smokescreen manoeuvre – of England’s use of international referees Wayne Barnes and Matthew Carley in training last week.

This was an obvious response to their recurring disciplinary problems, and while they again conceded more penalties than their opponents, at least a match aggregate of 12 is of manageable proportions.

The two crucial calls that benefitted England

The other relevant point here is that five of England’s nine second-half penalties were “attacking” infringements caused by the ball carrier getting isolated or for “crossing” obstruction. These represent attacking system errors or an individual chancing his arm and losing his support – and as such are far more forgivable than many of those awarded to Wales and Scotland during England’s previous Six Nations outings.

In so publicly calling Carley and Barnes – two of the top ten World Rugby officials – into England’s training camp is it possible that Jones also cleverly sent a subliminal message to the vastly less experienced Brace? This goes along the lines of: “Think twice before penalising us because we had no problems playing this way when Matthew and Wayne were in charge in training?” Or am I being too cynical…

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The Latest Italian Schoolboy Error

It was impossible not to sympathise as Italy’s coach Franco Smith’s lost his latest touchline struggle to contain his frustration with his players – and outstanding English referee Wayne Barnes was the unwitting central figure in this week’s latest instalment.

Barnes is certainly the world’s most experienced international referee and probably the best. While some officials – think Clive Norling, Nigel Owens or Tony Spreadbury – thrived through force of personality, the Gloucestershire barrister is all about accuracy of decision making and consistency of interpretation.

International teams prepare with incredible thoroughness with the referee being part of this analysis. And let’s face it, there is no shortage of Barnes footage to view.

Quite why Italy’s hooker Luca Bigi therefore thought retiring six metres from a penalty award to make a tackle following a quick tap was going to result in anything other than his second yellow card in as many games is something of a mystery.

With covering players behind him he had no need to jump in. Smith then sacrificed a winger to bring on his replacement hooker and Wales scored twice in the vacant wide channels before Bigi returned from the sinbin.

Empathy with the Game

Refereeing is an art, not a science, and late in the first half Barnes discretely showed us one of the many reasons why he is so good.

In addition to Bigi’s sin-binning, the Azzurri shipped five penalties (four of which came in the tackle area) in the opening 26 minutes of this round four clash. Unsurprisingly this earned them a team warning – and when a further infringement arrived two minutes later a yellow card would have been justifiable.

However, this sixth offence was more technical than cynical, with no.8 Michele Lamaro adjudged to have changed his bind in a maul then not re-joined from the hindmost foot, and as a consequence Barnes deemed a penalty adequate punishment.

The two crucial calls that benefitted England

Communicating with the Audience

Refereeing top-level games in the modern age involves a new skill set – communicating with a TV audience.

Rugby union’s laws are notoriously complicated, a situation which has worsened following the introduction of recent interpretations aimed at safeguarding players. A referee who offers a step-by-step explanation is therefore a very welcome addition to Six Nations matches watched by terrestrial TV audiences including many occasional rugby fans.

In this respect, Barnes’ interaction with TMO Tom Foley around the sin-binning of Italian replacement Marco Riccioni for leading with an arm into a tackler’s throat was something of a masterpiece.

While play continued he instructed: “Tom, have a look at that mate.”

After receiving confirmation that foul play had occurred and walking slowly to the giant screen to view a replay, Barnes mimed an arm being tucked into the body and advised the watching world: “He has to brace his arm into contact it can’t be away from his body.”

He then went on to explain his decision to downgrade the card from red to yellow with the words: “Contact was initially to shoulder not direct to the throat.”

By Paul Smith, Rugbypass

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