Subscriber OnlyRugbyThe Whistleblower

Owen Doyle: Injury exists in rugby and match officials need to keep pace with demand

A new generation of referees is emerging for this URC, a competition which has grown immensely in stature and now heads towards the semi-finals and grand final

“I don’t believe that was foul play, I believe that’s a collision between two extremely powerful rugby players.”

Not my words, but those of Bath coach, Johann van Graan, after his team had lost to Northampton in the English Premiership final.

This columnist has outlined before the worrying, fundamental disagreement that exists between what is a red card, dangerous play territory and what is not. Van Graan confirmed, in just one sentence, just how vast the difference is. It’s straight from the horse’s mouth and shows that the rift runs deep.

He was talking, of course, about the head-high hit by his prop, Beno Obano, on Northampton’s Juarno Augustus. Christophe Ridley, who put in the referee performance of the weekend, went through the protocols extremely well and showed Obano the inevitable red card. If Van Graan’s view is ever deemed to be correct then we would see a lot more concussive episodes. It would be coached into the game, instead of out it.


Rugby lives in a world where concussion and dementia exist. And the coach’s words will undoubtedly send a chill through many parents, who are already doubting the wisdom of sending their children onto the rugby pathway.

The results of Boston University’s post-mortem examination on the brains of collision sports athletes, including rugby, are frightening. Rugby must heed them, and take whatever measures are necessary to eliminate “tackles” such as Obano’s, no matter how unpalatable to those who see no foul play in such incidents. There is no option.

It’s important to say that the coach’s comments were by no means a rant objecting to the performance of the referee. It was calm, measured and complimentary of Ridley, who he described as the best in the Premiership – at least he got that right. The watching Wayne Barnes will also certainly have approved of the referee’s performance. The king is dead, long live the king.

And what of the referees in the URC, a competition which has grown immensely in stature and now heads towards the semi-finals and grand final. Sorry to say, the match officials have not kept pace with the demands of the challenges we now see.

In my opinion, the two best URC referees are Andrew Brace and Chris Busby, in that order. However, the much more experienced Brace will see in his rearview mirror that the newcomer, once a dot on the horizon, is now visibly closer. With Leinster and Munster in different semi-finals, the neutral selection policy rules them out of either match. It will be the same for the final, unless both teams lose. After those two, and the Italian Andrea Piardi, who is close enough to Busby, the pickings are slim.

Scotland’s Hollie Davidson travelled to Thomond Park for Munster against the Ospreys. Scrums apart, she did very well, and with some good coaching for the set-piece she can challenge for a move upwards. Her willingness to own her decisions is impressive. She definitely does not appear interested in on-going chats with the TMO, and her overrule of a foul play referral was quick and correct.

Davidson is now, no doubt, the best of the Scots, and let’s hope she soon gets a good batch of European appointments. If she comes through these well, then a shot at a Six Nations match must be on the cards over the next season or two.

Her compatriot, Mike Adamson, has unfortunately failed to convince. After a short term and a few matches at Six Nations level (all three involved Italy he has not been selected since. Jim Fleming retired in 2001, following which Scotland have failed to produce an international referee of high repute who has had an enduring presence at the top of the game. It is far, far too long, and a review of its elite development and talent identification programmes wouldn’t go amiss.

Wales’s Nigel Owens has been missed more than we would have thought. Craig Evans, who came through the Sevens tournaments, has really yet to prove himself. But needs must, so he may well feature in these last two rounds.

South Africa, once a veritable powerhouse of refereeing, are now somewhat lost without Jaco Peyper. His Achilles’s tendon eventually got the better of him, forcing his retirement. There are no ready replacements.

Both semi-finals and final will require top-notch referee performances. The Bulls will be comfortable at home on the highveld, and Leinster will be preparing for a tough day at the office. Munster will be thrilled that their impressive run of wins means Thomond Park is the venue for the visit of Glasgow, who are a different kettle of fish when playing on their own home pitch in Scotstoun.

Busby refereed their win against Stormers and did a very good job, including applying correct mitigation to a high-hit episode. Glasgow’s win was assisted by Mannie Libbock’s most unusual demoralising, 100 per cent failure rate as he missed all of his four kicks at goal.

A refereeing talking point out of Leinster’s comfortable win against improving Ulster was the penalty try which wasn’t. An Ulster maul made good progress and looked set to cross the home team’s line. Caelan Doris, literally chancing his arm, moved his position illegally, wrapping around the ball carrier. Brace awarded just a penalty, whereas I was among the many expecting it to be a penalty try. Fortunately, it had no bearing on the outcome.