Refereeing in the Ireland-Australia Series - Green and Gold Rugby
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Refereeing in the Ireland-Australia Series

Refereeing in the Ireland-Australia Series

Let’s start with a quick disclaimer: Australia lost a series that they should have won. They lost largely because their discipline, game management, and accuracy at key moments was not as good as Ireland’s. On top of that, they scored 55 points across 3 test matches, or just 18 points a match, which is a reflection of a poor attack.

However, all that being so, the refereeing was really poor across the series. But in order to understand why , we need to think more conceptually about how the referees are being trained to manage the situations they see out on the field.

In Pursuit of Consistency

Starting after the 2007 World Cup, and accelerating after 2011, World Rugby has periodically issued directives instructing how the game is to be refereed. This project has had two elements: one, to introduce consistency and predictability in what coaches and players can expect on the field; and two, to reduce the distance between how different referees from different places control the game.

The former element has been something of a success: coaches know in particular that “focus areas” will be targeted similarly by all referees over the ensuing six months or so, but in other respects they have to wait to see what the feel is on a given day. The second element has, by contrast, been a huge success. Where ten years ago northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere refs operated at different paces, and sometimes looked like they were running different sports, today that gap has narrowed substantially.

The conceptual opening to achieve this has been to focus more on individual events: the tackle in a vacuum, an offside penalty in isolation, and so on. Referees are taught, through circulated videos every week, what is the right way to referee a tackle release and what is the wrong way, with examples from games in Japan, South Africa, and France treated exactly the same.

The problem with this approach, as we’ve seen in this series, is that focusing on the individual event has led referees to de-emphasise context. And yet, understanding the context for an individual event is precisely what distinguishes a great referee from a black-letter automaton, and the Australia-Ireland series showed this starkly.

Foul Play

Let’s start with foul play. Over the last couple of years, World Rugby has poured immense resources into minimising foul play and, in particular, reducing head injuries. Two areas have been the major focus of this campaign: contests in the air; and high tackles.

Almost no rugby person thinks that the new guidelines are a good thing for the game, or that they display much respect for what actually goes on on a rugby field. We’ve seen high tackle penalties given for contact that occurs four feet off the ground, which is just wrong.

The law that will be trialled in the under 20 second-tier competition in November—that tackles have to be below the nipples—is simply ridiculous. Fans have every right to wonder exactly who is coming up with these ideas.

The first major area of foul play in this series was tackles off the ball. Australia had a try called back in test one for a tackle on a dummy runner from Adam Coleman where he had very little chance to pull out. The play continued. The act influenced the play in no way at all. (There was also a quite different penalty, for a tackle off the ball, against Caleb Timu in test two, which was a clear penalty.) The TMO and referee together applied the individual event approach. Was there a tackle off the ball? Yes? Ok, try cancelled and penalty. No thought to the broader context of what’s going on in the game and how the act is affecting the contest.

Contrast that with a key moment in the second half of test three. Bernard Foley throws a wide ball past Kurtley Beale to winger Dane Haylett-Petty, who finds himself in more space than any back three player did at any other time on the night. Irish winger Keith Earls, also in plenty of space, makes a bad read, realises it, and continues his run, clattering Kurtley Beale to the ground. So, instead of two players with the ball in 15 metres of space—Beale and Haylett-Petty—the latter is on his own, and can only step and weave until the tackle is made.

Let’s be clear. Earls has been playing test rugby for ten years. He’s a pro. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Sure, he clatters rather than tackles Beale, but in doing so he has a major impact on the line break. A good referee understands the broader context—what Australia is trying to do with the ball, and how Ireland are killing that opportunity—and likely awards a penalty, with a talking to. (At 38 metres out and 15 metres in, Foley probably takes the kick for goal.)

The Rhythm of the Match

Re-watching the second half of test three is really hard for an Australian fan. Live, I thought we were fairly dominant. But on second viewing, it’s evident that we were really dominant. Except for one successful exit, and an Irish scrum late on where Conway is tackled into touch on the first phase, every single time Ireland got the ball, Australia got a successful jackal in. The problem was that they didn’t always get paid.

A key part of the explanation for why is context. In the second half, Australia were very inaccurate. But they were nevertheless able to up the pace of the game, holding the ball for extended periods in the right parts of the field, and add to that a heavy physical presence in the scrum and maul. Against all expectations, Ireland began to tire.

A good referee would realise this. He’d notice it every time the forwards came together to scrum, at the very least. From his experience, he’d know that tiring players at that level are usually good enough to still do their core jobs well, the ones where they are directly involved, like making a tackle or a carry. But where the fatigue shows is off the ball: in the accuracy of decoy runners, in the clean out, in getting back onside.

Sure enough, Ireland’s attacking clean-out, which was incredible all series up to that point, became inaccurate and lazy. In the 78th minute, Tolu Latu has to reach under the ball carrier to anchor himself on the ball, and still three Irish players can’t dislodge him. Same with other jackals by Tupou and Latu.

These are, on replay, just terrible calls by an international ref. But thinking about context helps refs to anticipate the pictures they are likely to see and get those calls right. The picture Gauzere saw in the 78th minute should have been one he was entirely expecting to see.

We can look at this inability to appreciate the context of the game—Australia’s relentless attack and Ireland’s inability to stick with them—from other angles. In the second half, Ireland conceded six straight penalties. Sure, they weren’t all tackle offences, and some were scrum offences. But they were strong evidence that Ireland couldn’t actually stay with Australia—and a good ref would be noting that trend and talking about yellow cards for repeat offences.

Or let’s take another angle. Across the three tests, Ireland operated a rush defence consistently. Australia had around 240 attacking rucks. Not a single offside penalty was given for that line either lining up in front of the last feet, or moving too soon. A good ref is thinking even before the game: What are the odds that Ireland operates that defence 240 times in a row and no single player ever gets it wrong in a material way? A better ref, noticing the fatigue in the second half of the final test at the end of a ten month season, is already anticipating that the line will struggle to stay onside—as indeed is pretty evident on the replay.

I want to be really clear here that much the same point could be made about the second half of the second test. Ireland were relentless in their attack on the Australian line. The men in gold tired, fell off tackles, didn’t get onside. The referee penalised repeatedly, but Ireland deserved a yellow card because they were forcing Australia into repeat offences.

Again: context.

A Final Example

Much of this is drawn from the final test, but I want to look at the second test for a moment where there were two identical calls that again bely this lack of appreciation on the context for the picture presented to the referee.

In the first half, Sekope Kepu was tackled, placed the ball into the Irish tackler, the ball rolled away, and Kepu was called for a knock on.

Then, in the last minute, Kurtley Beale got over the advantage line, Rob Kearney tackled him, and the ball comes out the side of the ruck. Again, the ref calls a knock on against Folau.

Again, those calls show no appreciation of context. The tackler has to release. He can’t roll into the ball placement zone. And these guys are professionals. So unless your own player dislodges it with a stray boot, what’s the odds of a totally messed up place like that? What are the odds of two, by the same team, in one match?
When the referee sees that picture, with tacklers all in the zone where the ball is, the penalty for a player not rolling away is the much more logical call. If the ref doesn’t see the knock-on (and in neither case, on replay, was there one), then that’s the default call.

Moving Forward

World Rugby is due to re-assess their TMO and foul play protocols over the next couple of weeks. Good.

But I’m concerned that the focus on a handful of incidents will take the focus away from what we really need to improve the game: a philosophical shift to focus on offences that stop the attacking team’s flow. The new concentration on deliberate knock-ons, while overdone in practice, is a good start.

However, what we need is a much broader directive to referees to think more about what is going on in the match as a whole, and specifically the ways in which defending teams are using penalties to kill the play and the disincentive structure that exists to stopping them doing that.

  • Caeliv Donnelly

    Rugby needs to go like American football these days – you need a ref for the contact area- a ref for the offside line – a ref in open space at either end to spot off the ball stuff and a rolling TMO type to constantly monitor all 4.

    Maybe a good idea is a maximum penalty rule. Each team is allowed 7 penalties and any after that results in a 30m shot at goal! Like maxiumum fouls in Basketball. Penalties are penalized in a normal way up to penalty 7, but any infringements after that gives your opponent a shot at goal.

    Sorry I could possibly be hallucinating.

    • Huw Tindall

      The touchies can already talk to the ref about offside. They don’t seem to for some reason however and just call back minor techinical high tackles and other b#llsh!t.

    • Happyman

      CD your insights have been a welcome addition to the stream.
      For mine the real issue is not the guys who are officiating on the field it is the TMO. I honestly look at the decisions made by the ref in game and have no problem with them. Some I disagree with but it is the intervention of the TMO that causes the problem.
      Latu great the ruck but the ref saw it differently pen Ireland. Pocock got a pilfer while off his feet pen Aus. both were incorrect calls but they balanced out.

      • Caeliv Donnelly

        Thanks for the kind words Happy man.

        The fundamental problem with rugby these days is you change the rules and operations of those rules and the coaches react. Then the rules change again, it’s constantly evolving and the game is stuck in cycle after cycle since it went professional. I’m not even sure of the solution to be honest.

        The scrum is a typical example. A scrum used to be a way of restarting the game – nothing more. Now it’s a playground for 20 stone front rows trying to outsmart each other into comceeding penalties, and has been for the last 15 years. That’s just one example.

        At the end of the day , Ireland won the series, Australia were probably 1 pass away from winning it and between all the decisions for and against I’m not sure the outcome was affected.

        • Happyman

          With respect to scrums I am a even more old school I prefer the old days when 15 went out and there were mo replacements unless injury intervened (Not the tactical injury but real ones). In five years props will be 145Kg and play for 55 minutes.

          The 23 man squad have just led to larger humans playing as they don’t have to go the distance and can be replaced with fresh players. I prefer the old days when a smaller but fitter player could work over a big guy late in games.

        • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

          I love how games used to open up when players got tired in the last 15-20 mins. Now with so many replacements defensive structures mostly still function very well as you replace over half your team anyway.

          It also horribly disadvantages nations with less depth like the Pacific Island nations, Wales and yes even Australia compared to England, France and New Zealand.

  • Hugh Nospam

    Question: if Australia’s discipline, game management, and accuracy at key moments was not as good as Ireland’s, why should they have won? Isn’t winning at the top level largely about: discipline, game management, and accuracy at key moments?

    (Useful article, but that’s a silly and unnecessary opening para).

    • Jamie Miller

      Thanks for reading. When I say “should have won” I mean: they had the opportunities, and couldn’t make the most of them. Not: they deserved to win.

      • Jamie Miller

        Or, to put it another way, both sides scored 55 points. Australia scored 25 of those through tries: 45% of our points we had to actually get the ball down the other end of the field and across the line. Ireland scored only 15 points in tries, or just 27%. big difference. In other words, we had to work a lot harder for our points than Ireland did, and in terms of wins, got less result. With that foundation, really “should” have been good enough to win the series.

        • Hugh Nospam

          “With that foundation, really ‘should’ have been good enough to win the series.” … is about right, I think. Or, put yet another way: if Australia can get better at discipline and game management, they will win a series like this (even if with questionable refs).

        • Jamie Miller

          I’d go further. Almost all our losses are due to those things – all mental. If we can fix those, we won’t just win those series, we’ll win almost every series.

        • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

          That’s extremely optimistic of you, Jamie!

          Great article. Thank you.

    • Greg

      I take the message to mean “The Wobblies didn’t lose because of the ref.”

      I think that is a necessary opening statement.

  • Patrick

    good points

  • Dally M

    Good article Jamie.

    It just seems lately there is a tendency for the ref to look for an attacking team offence firstly before considering what the defensive team are doing, as you say, in the context of that.

    You have teams like NZ, SA & Oz that want to play a fast game versus the Northern Hemisphere teams that mostly want to slow it down, yet the tacklers are still allowed to do just enough to slow that down. The ref yells a warning & out they roll, but the damage is done & the momentum is stalled. Again the ref should recognise the context and the momentum in these instances.

    World Rugby are the ones ultimately responsible for this and usually means they favour the Northern style of reffing to the letter of the law rather than letting a game flow and adapting to the game.

  • Greg

    Jamie,
    Thanks for, imo, a well reasoned and balanced analysis. You make some really good points.

    I hope world rugby is thinking about some of these issues… plus the safety of lifting players in general play.

  • Brumby Runner

    Generally, I think the on field refereeing wasn’t the problem. I have the impression that Marius van der Westhuizen particularly wanted the game to flow. The real killer is the incessant interruptions by the TMO. I am coming around to the view that the TMO should only have input when invited by the on field ref.

    Assistant refs (can we just go back to calling them touch judges?) also need to smarten up a bit. On a few occasions, where there was a question of the try scorer perhaps going into touch just before scoring, I noticed the TJ had his flag up but when it came to a discussion with the referee the TJ even in those situations was indicating the TMO should be consulted. So an extra delay of up to 2 – 3 minutes when the correct decision had been made in the first place.

    Both referees and Touch Judges seem to be so insecure about their first impressions these days that they have come to rely on the TMO for nearly every little incident in the game.

  • Hugh Cavill

    Good analysis Jamie.

    My issue is with appointments. Who are the best referees in the World at the moment? Well last year in the Lions series it’s clear that Poite, Garces and Peyper are high on the list. Throw in Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes and you’ve got five of the top six or seven at the moment.

    We had three blockbuster series this June. NZ/France, Aus/Ire and SA/England. Logically you would assign your best refs to the biggest games, even giving them a few matches to officiate.

    So where were they assigned?

    Garces – Fiji vs Georgia. Owens – Japan vs Georgia. Barnes – USA vs Scotland. Peyper – Argentina vs Wales.

    Only Poite was assigned to a major series, picking up an England/SA game.

    This makes absolutely no sense to me, and given the officiating issues in the NZ and Australian series I can’t believe World Rugby have taken this approach.

    • Jamie Miller

      I think they’re trying to build depth. Fwiw. Whether that’s a good decision or not….

    • Dud Roodt

      I thought I read somewhere that Owens was in Japan to mentor up and comers

    • Brumby Runner

      All I can say is that I’m very grateful that none of Garces, Poite or Peyper had control of any of the Wallabies tests. None of them would have handled the tests as well as the three who had them.

      Worse than the personalities involved imo, was that there were three separate refs for the tests. I think there would be fewer problems if one ref was appointed for the whole series.

    • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

      I don’t like criticising referees but Poite is a bit of a law unto himself.

  • Mart

    Interesting article Jamie.
    I think the main point is consistency.

    Also it feels like Ref’s these days are desperate to find fault in anything they can. Most of the time it’s not necessary as doesn’t affect the play.
    This is why i enjoy watching Glen Jackson games. He seems to let a fair bit go But at least he’s consistent.

    P.s that Earls play was very smart. He had no right to keep running at all, the play had moved past him big time.

  • Richard Patterson

    The more people try to critique a referee’s performance, the more people will see fault. That is the way of the world now.
    Every time people are content that an incident gets overlooked in the interests of continuity, they will be critical on the next occasion that the laws of the games were not administered. Where is the much voiced consistency in that approach?
    The only trait people want consistency on is leniency towards the team they are following. They want the marginal / contentious situations like breakdowns, aerial contests, scrum collapses, intentional knock-on’s, forward passes, collapsed mauls, knock-on’s and offsides to be overlooked for their team – but penalised for the opposition.
    When a referee misses something that negatively impacts the result they want – they want the TMO to intervene.
    When the TMO intervenes on something the referee misses that negatively impacts the result they want – they complain.
    When a referee misses something that positively impacts the result they want – they say “that’s part of the game”.
    When a TMO fails to speak up on an incident that positively impacts the result they want – they praise the lack of officiating interference in the game.

    People gave Bernard Foley a pass on Saturday night for missing a kickable late penalty and butchering a try scoring opportunity that could have / should have won the Wallabies the game. It’s filed in the “players make mistakes” category. Somehow though people expected the referee to be perfect. Somehow they were more interested in whether an officiating crew could identify any remote contact with the ball by an Irish defender instead of how 3 international backs could mess up a 3 on 1 attacking situation 10 meters from the Ireland try line that would have won the game.
    This article chooses to be critical of 3 different referees in 3 test matches in this Aus vs Ireland series.
    People were critical of 3 different referees in 3 test matches in the NZ vs France series. Somehow we are 0 for 6 on the perfection reading for these contests. Or is it that in 5 of the 6 matches the team people wanted to win the contest did not?
    Strangely I heard no such commentary of the 3 referees involved in the SA vs England series. Maybe all 3 were what the 6 here in Australia/NZ were not. Perfect.
    Maybe it is simply that people here didn’t have the same vested interest in wanting one team to win – and one team to lose.

    Maybe it’s just a pointless exercise and detracting from what really wins matches which is how players execute across the 80 playing minutes of a rugby game. I bet getting those right generates a much better win / loss record than Monday Morning Quarterbacking a refereeing performance. I bet teams who fundamentally go into a game with the aim to take the referee out of the contest win more games than they lose. Or maybe it’s simply as Bill Parcells always said “you are what your record says you are”. The scoreboard seldom lies.

  • If we want to be taken seriously, articles like this should try to be neutral and unaffected by Australian bias. “Australia had a try called back in test one for a tackle on a dummy runner from Adam Coleman where he had very little chance to pull out”. This certainly doesn’t meet that criteria. He completely could have pulled out, he chose to put on a hit. And he afterwards shoved the guys head into the ground. That it was about 10 phases before the try and irrelevant to it, is a pretty good argument. But to say that nothing happened just makes us look one eyed.

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