Owen Doyle: Referees’ heads also on the block when it comes to World Cup selection

Six Nations’ officials staking claims to be selected for France 2023 panel

There is nothing quite like a Six Nations Championship in a World Cup year.

Whether a player or a match official, there is an extra goal – knuckle down, perform well, avoid injury, nail down a seat on the plane to France. Believe me, the competition, amongst referees, assistants, and TMOs will be stiff, there won’t be room for everyone.

Just like the playing squads, the referee team will be spending a lot of time in camp, ironing out any inconsistencies, planning to deliver top notch Six Nations performances, all under the guidance of World Rugby’s elite referee manager, Joël Jutge. Undoubtedly, they will be concentrating on the key principles of preserving space, and getting fast ball from the breakdown. We could certainly do with less penalties, so turning a Nelsonian blind eye to minor immaterial infringements would deliver more continuity.

Ireland have Karl Dickson for the opener in Cardiff, and he’s pretty much the fastest gun in town when it comes to sanctioning at the breakdown, far too fast at times. But Ireland thrive on very quick ball, so his approach may well prove more problematic for Warren Gatland to solve for Wales than it will for Andy Farrell.


We’ll see from the opening day what exactly is what at the breakdown. World Rugby tell us that hands on the ground beyond the ball will be penalised, and so it was in the Heineken Champions Cup, but only for the defenders. The team in possession have, up to now, been allowed to do so with complete impunity.

Watch carefully too the formation of driving mauls. These are nigh-on impossible to defend legally, so referees will be sharp on ensuring that when the catcher is returned to ground he is available to be “sacked”, or mauled. The lifters must not position themselves in front of him, denying access to the defence. It’s not easy to spot at ground level, and TMOs have a role to play here, despite that we’ve been told we’ll hear less from them.

In a major policy shift, the pre-match coach consultation with the referees is for the chop. That little get-together on the evening before the match has too often been used to put huge pressure on the officials, which was never its intended purpose. Of course, the post-match feedback to Jutge and the referees importantly remains in place.

So, it should all be good to go next Saturday, but don’t forget that players won’t be the only ones to make mistakes. However, in the normal course of events they will be excused, whereas referees will not. Unfair perhaps, but Mark Twain was correct, “it was ever thus.”

During the past year Jutge has shown that he’s prepared to bench some of his top men, notably Mathew Carley, Damon Murphy, Luke Pearce, Mathieu Raynal, Paul Willams. All missed the cut for a summer or autumn international appointment due to performance issues, and were rightly held accountable; although Raynal got a reprieve due to injuries.

With only 12 World Cup spots up for grabs, all of 15 referees have been appointed to the Six Nations, with Jutge slotting in a different referee for each match, giving his full panel an opportunity to show their form. Fair enough, I suppose, and it is being extremely fair, but let’s hope it doesn’t backfire.

Englishman Christophe Ridley, who has come on a late run and would have been an interesting dark horse, misses out, although four of his fellow countrymen do remain in the hunt. If Ridley was Welsh, maybe he’d have had a chance; Wales have failed to develop a potential successor to Nigel Owens so there’s nobody in the frame from there.

The eight who refereed at RWC Japan will very likely be the core group for France. That’s Wayne Barnes, Jaco Peyper, Mathieu Raynal, Luke Pearce, Ben O’Keefe, Nic Berry, Angus Gardner, Paul Williams. These have a lot of credit in the Bank of World Rugby, so only a poor performance would derail them. For Barnes, an extraordinary, never achieved before, fifth World Cup awaits.

That leaves seven to fight it out for the last four spots, and here it gets really interesting. Ireland’s Andrew Brace, and Georgia’s Nika Amashukeli are probably pencilled in by now, and good, solid performances in Scotland v Wales and France v Scotland respectively should see ink on their contracts.

Probably not enough has been seen of either James Doleman (NZ) or Damon Murphy (Australia) for them to be real contenders this time around, but they are positioned to take advantage of any slip-ups. In finalising just 12 names, the selectors will have some head scratching to do, and will be looking at Matt Carley and Karl Dickson both of the RFU, and also Scotland’s Mike Adamson. If the others all run true to form, then one of these three will probably lose out.

The Englishmen will need to be at the top of their game for both to get there. If Adamson comes in ahead of either, they will not be amused, particularly as they have consistently been getting higher level international appointments than the Scot.

As we wait impatiently for kick-off in what has all the makings of an epic Six Nations, let’s have a fervent wish too – for the absence of brain injuries. And if it happens, that it’s handled correctly. No one wants to see a player who has been knocked senseless try to return to the pitch.

It’s must surely be time to introduce suspensions and serious fines for those who show a disregard for the protocols attached to rugby’s most critical issue. Why not? These people are part of the problem.