RugbyThe Whistleblower

Owen Doyle: Dearth of refereeing talent in three countries a problem for the URC

Individual Unions are responsible for developing match officials and some are more interested than others

There’s a thorny problem in the United Rugby Championship.

When Irish teams play those from South Africa, the referee must come from Italy, Scotland or Wales, who are the weakest of the Unions in terms of match officials.

We had some more evidence of that over the weekend, and Tappe Henning (URC referee manager) has quite a challenge on his hands.

It’s all very well saying, which of course Henning does not, that a poor referee performance is the same for both teams; that misses the point completely.


Individual Unions are responsible for developing match officials, and some are more interested than others. The issue represents a huge task for the URC.

From those three Unions, only Scotland’s Mike Adamson is in contention for a referee place in the forthcoming World Cup, and his selection is by no means a certainty.

Wales have former international Sevens referee Craig Evans, but he hasn’t yet made a significant mark on the 15-a-side game.

The Italian referee Andrea Piardi, who is coached by Alain Rolland, is now starting to show interesting potential, but he’s about the only “new” one across these unions, and has some way to go.

It all boils down to a severe shortage, both in quality and quantity; there is something very wrong when the top teams do not get better referees when facing off against each other. The competition cannot claim to be one of the best until this problem is solved, and driving that solution is an absolute imperative.

Pandora’s box isn’t opened often in rugby. But when referee Karl Dickson awarded Leicester a penalty try, plus a second yellow (and consequential red) to Exeter’s Olly Woodburn, the lid fairly blew off the tin. Many questions, but few answers, escaped from the fateful container.

Here’s what happened: Leicester’s deadly finisher, Chris Ashton, who nabbed three tries on the day, was tackled short of the Exeter line, with his momentum carrying him towards in-goal.

At the same time Woodburn slid along the ground, in the field of play, landing on or near Ashton, and assisted the tackler in preventing the try.

The law is absolutely clear, a player cannot fall on an opponent in possession of the ball who is on the ground in the field of play. It is primarily designed to allow players who go to ground to collect the ball to get back to their feet unhindered, but it is very rarely seen in this particular context.

The law does not mention “sliding”, but let’s not split hairs, Woodburn went off his feet and side-entered the tackle – that’s illegal too.

So, the referee was absolutely correct, which was acknowledged by Exeter coach Rob Baxter. Not so, said his intemperate winger Jack Nowell who tweeted that he was “in shock, like shock shocked,” and calling it “one of the worst decisions I have ever seen. EVER.”

The incident couldn’t possibly have had less impact on the result, Exeter were on the receiving end of a massive hammering, 19-62, nonetheless the decision sent the refereeing cohort into a spin, and the debate is raging. What will the decision be if, or rather when, this happens in a crucial World Cup match?

It seems totally illogical not to be allowed to do pretty much anything lawful, provided it’s not dangerous, to prevent an opponent from scoring. A few of us sat around discussing what law needed to be changed, so that we could wrap everything up nice and neatly, and close the lid again on that old box.

The problem with an actual law change is that in permitting Woodburn’s action when it’s close to the goal-line, you automatically allow it in any part of the field. No matter how we looked at it, we seemed to run into a cul-de-sac.

And then, eureka, someone remembered a law exception – it is, as we know, not legal to tackle an opponent who is in the air. But if that opponent is off his feet, diving to score, the exception allows him to be tackled, in the air or not. Common sense.

So, why not apply the same rationale to the Woodburn defence, and permit it, but only when the player, on the ground, is attempting to score; at which point he has no intention of regaining his feet.

That would simply mirror the current exception, and it’s a hell of a lot better than preventing defenders from, well, defending. They can hardly be expected to stand around, doing nothing.

Undoubtedly, all elite coaches will want precise information around this vexed situation. Teams cannot go into critical matches or the World Cup with any shadow of doubt as to what exactly is what, and how referees will deal with players who go off their feet in such circumstances. The referee team, too, must be absolutely at one on it, consistency is essential.

Finally, what of the dissenting Jack Nowell? He was charged by the RFU, and the courts of rugby justice handed down a £10,000 fine, also sending him on a referee course. While that seems a hefty punishment, it really isn’t, when you think about it.

There is no playing suspension included, so he remains free to play in the Heineken Cup semi-final against La Rochelle. Only getting a monetary fine is something of a relief both to the player, and to the club. There’s quite a paradox in there somewhere.