Law discussion: All Black penalty or scrum?
With two minutes to play in the deciding third Test, Owen Farrell kicks the British & Irish Lions fifth penalty goal to make the score 15-all. Beauden Barrett of New Zealand kicks off to his right to restart the match. It is, as he usually does, a shortish kick to give his side a chance to retrieve the ball.
The ball came down about 10 metres from the Lions' 10-metre line. Liam Williams, the Lions' fullback with the help of CJ Stander, and Kieran Read of New Zealand jumped for the ball. Read reached up with his right hand but seems not to have touched the ball which struck the side of Williams's face and flew to the Lions right where Ken Owens (16) of the Lions was standing facing his goal line. He caught the ball with his left (further) arm and almost immediately dropped in. Anton Lienert-Brown the Lions' outside Centrex swooped on the ball but, as Lienert-Brown was grabbing the ball, the referee blew his whistle to stop play. And then he signalled a penalty against Owen for playing the ball when offside.
The penalty was in an eminently kickable position, some 32 metres from the goal-line and well infield from touch.
The Lions protested, with Owen Farrell looking most vociferous, not that he was a match official.
The referee then decided to consult the TMO. The referee then made the signal to consult the TMO and walked off for a clear view on the television screen with its replays. After replays, the referee gave his view to the TMO and asked his approval.
The referee said: "Are you happy for the knock-on and the challenge in the air was fair and the penalty kick against Red in front?"
The TMO said: "Yes, I am."
The referee then slowly walked the 10 metres back to the place of the incident in the company of the two captains, telling Sam Warburton of the Lions that Read's contact with Williams had been a "fair challenge. We go on."
When he got back to place where Farrell had more to say, the referee spoke to the captains. It is not always clear and English is not his first language but he seems to say: "We have a decision. We have an ideas of offside by 16 Red. He didn't play deliberately the ball. It was an accidental offside, scrum for Black."
Read disagrees with the referee, saying: "Romain, in the rules there's no accidental offside."
The referee insists, the scrum takes place and not long afterwards the match ends in a draw, the first drawn Lions series since 1955 in South Africa.
Of course, it's going to be a big talking point. Lions' supports will most likely approve of the referee's decision; All Black supports will most likely disapprove of the referee's decision.
Let's go to the law.
Law 11 DEFINITIONS
In general play a player is offside if the player is in front of a team-mate who is carrying the ball, or in front of a team-mate who last played the ball.
Played: The ball is played when it is touched by a player.
Williams played the ball.
Owens was in front of Williams.
Owens was in an offside position.
Law 11.1 Offside in general play
(a) A player who is in an offside position is liable to sanction only if the player does one of three things:
Interferes with play or,
Moves forward, towards the ball or
Fails to comply with the 10-metre Law (Law 11.4).
A player who is in an offside position is not automatically penalised.
The ball touched Owens. In fact he caught it before letting it go.
There is something called accidental offside in the Laws of the Game.
Law 11.6 Accidental offside
(a) When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside. If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.
Could Owens have avoided being touched by the ball?
It is unlikely if even a much nimbler man that Owens could have avoided contact with the ball.
But he caught it.
That surely was a probably a reflex. When he had time perform an act of will, an intentional act, a deliberate act, he let the ball go. The way he let it go could actually have worked in the All Blacks' favour.
The referee's decision to have a scrum is certainly not unreasonable. In fact there are often cases when something similar is penalised and often the referee seems to get a bit of a thrill in doing so. It's not great to think that a match – and in this case a series – could be determined by such a dubious penalty, one that was not harmful as tackling high or banging an opponent's jaw or as deceitful as grabbing an opponent's jersey to prevent him from going about his lawful business. There was no harm or cheating in what Owens did. It was not even putting the ball into a scrum skew!
But there are some aspects of the incident that could well be queried.
World Rugby has a protocol for consulting the TMO and what happened in Auckland is not allowed by the protocol, which gives the areas for consultation as follows:
Law 6.A.7 – Referee Consulting With Others
(a) The referee may consult with assistant referees about matters relating to their duties, the Law relating to foul play or timekeeping and may request assistance related to other aspects of the referees duties including the adjudication of offside
(b) A match organiser may appoint an official known as a Television Match Official (TMO) who uses technological devices to clarify situations relating to:
i. Where there is doubt as to whether a ball has been grounded in in-goal for a score or a touchdown
ii. Where there is doubt as to whether a kick at goal has been successful
iii. Where there is doubt as to whether players were in touch or touch in goal before grounding the ball in in-goal or the ball has been made dead
iv. Where match officials believe an infringement may have occurred leading to a try or in preventing a try providing that the potential infringement has occurred no more than two phases (rucks or mauls) after the potential infringement and before the ball has been grounded in in-goal
v. Where match officials believe foul play may have occurred
vi. The clarification of sanctions required for acts of foul play.
If what the referee did here is to be a standard, we could get to the stage where every penalty is referred to the TMO. (That's obviously an exaggeration!)
It is also not clear why the referee changed his mind. He had awarded the penalty. In his conversation with the TMO, they agreed that a penalty was the right decision. And it than became a scrum.
The law on a referee's altering a decision is short.
Law 6.A.6 Referee altering a decision
The referee may alter a decision when a touch judge has raised the flag to signal touch.
The referee may alter a decision when an assistant referee has raised the flag to signal touch or an act of foul play.
One more thing.
Why did the referee not allow advantage?
The All Blacks seemed in a great position to gain a real advantage when Lienert-Brown got that ball with momentum and insecure defence between him and the touchline.
It would be a great pity if all the excitement, exhilaration, skill and effort of such a grand series ended with a controversy about a decision by the referee, rather than what players achieved.
But then that is sentimental thinking and a referee is there to apply the law.
Summary: As far as the law goes, Owens was in front of Williams and he caught the ball. That makes the penalty a reasonable decision, in fact the safest decision for a referee to take.
And then the last of the last things: why on earth are players allowed to query a referee and even shout at a referee to the extent that happened to day and on many other occasions?