Owen Doyle: Bulls deserved to beat Leinster, but the match deserved an elite referee

The URC has a problem on its hands when it comes to the appointing of match officials

Referee Sam Grove-White signals a decision during Leinster's defeat by Bulls. Photograph: Deon van der Merwe/Steve Haag Sports/Inpho

It seems that you can be at 1,350m above sea level and still be out of your depth.

However, before analysing the performance of Scottish referee Sam Grove-White (SGW), in Bulls v Leinster, let’s look at how his appointment came about. Firstly, it was the same team of four officials who had handled the Bulls match against Benetton the weekend before, with SGW taking over the whistle from Mike Adamson, who went into the role of assistant.

Former international referee Tappe Henning of South Africa handles refereeing matters at the URC and perhaps it was considered convenient to retain the same group. Whatever the reason, it turned out badly.

Henning’s previous role was as referee commissioner in the Scottish Rugby Union. Therefore, he knows well the strengths and weaknesses of their so-called top refs, and to appoint SGW to a semi-final was a significant risk in my view. Nothing that I have seen of him has suggested he has the ability to cope with the intensity and pace of events that exist in a high-level knock-out match.


It was a poor performance, that was there for everybody to see. But I am much minded to blame the appointment itself, more than the referee. Neither can the assistants, Adamson and Adam Jones, plus TMO Ben Whitehouse, be exempt from criticism.

Some creative out-of-the-box thinking might have been a good idea. How about a phone call to Nika Amashukeli in Tbilisi? Or closer to home, Christophe Ridley? They meet the necessary criteria of experience, ability and neutrality.

The performance of referee Sam Grove-White came up short in the Bulls-Leinster match. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/Steve Haag Sports/Inpho

A referee must put down his markers early, otherwise it gets very hard to pull things back. As early as the first minute James Ryan was taken out off the ball, but no whistle. Then Joe McCarthy was committed to a tackle on Willie Le Roux, but it also looked like there was head-on-head involved. TMO Whitehouse decided a review was not necessary; throughout the match he was the sole arbiter of foul play.

Including, bewilderingly, keeping to himself the scandalous torpedo-like clearing out of Jamison Gibson-Park – the point of the collision looked to me to be to the back of the scrumhalf’s neck: highly dangerous. This was crying out for a review, and an informed decision by the referee, who should have been determined to see it for himself. Gibson-Park then left for a HIA, and didn’t return. He was a huge loss for Leinster.

The TMO did inform SGW when Ross Byrne was tackled without the ball by Marco van Staden, which ruled out a Bulls try. The incident happened right beside the referee but he left it alone until Whitehouse intervened.

There were further takeouts, not particularly nasty but they were of the “in the air” variety. One on Jordan Larmour; and another by McCarthy on Johan Goosen. Neither was penalised. McCarthy also escaped sanction while lying on the wrong side of a breakdown, interfering with both the ball and an opponent.

Leinster's Jordan Larmour and Elrigh Louw of the Bulls compete for possession. Photograph: Deon van der Merwe /Steve Haag Sports/Inpho

SGW told him to stop, although prevention after the offence is a hopeless strategy. Eventually, he put his arm out for advantage, and when that didn’t occur, he failed to return to penalise.

The scrum was a shambles, but that’s not unusual. It was unusual, though, to see a couple of absolutely blatant forward passes not picked up by anybody – these were under the noses of the assistants, but no calls were made. I’ve no idea if the other officials were constantly in SGW’s ear, or were not assisting when they should have been. Either way, it appeared the referee wasn’t the only person out of his depth.

Does it all add up to the officials costing Leinster the victory? No, it doesn’t. But it would have been a completely different encounter with an elite referee, which the match deserved. However, under the prevailing circumstances, the Bulls’ victory was totally merited. They would also have had a pile of queries had they lost, including a dubious penalty to Leinster before James Lowe’s acrobatic try.

Jacques Nienaber’s much vaunted defensive system came under pressure from the kicking of Le Roux and Goosen, and the wide channels were targeted from the get-go. At the same time the attack has visibly faltered, becoming less sharp, less spontaneous.

South African coaches have had indifferent stints in Ireland, Rassie Erasmus and Johann van Graan achieved little during their respective periods with Munster. We can only hope that Nienaber will prove to be very different. Time will tell.

Referee Andrea Piardi shows a yellow card to Richie Gray of Glasgow Warriors against Munster. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

Next to Thomond Park, where not many were expecting a Munster defeat, but that’s what we got. Their performance was well below what we’ve seen from them in recent times. The Italian referee Andrea Piardi put in a very good day’s work. Organised and decisive, he obviously had a clear plan as to how he would handle things as the match unfolded.

When Alex Nankivill charged dangerously into Glasgow’s George Horne in a botched attempt to clear him out, the referee correctly ensured that he saw a replay, then made the red card call decisively. There were also “good” yellows for Richie Gray for repeated team infringements, and Matt Fagerson for foul play.

Piardi, coached by Alain Rolland, knows very well the value, and the necessity, of detailed prematch planning. Across the two matches, an old adage came to mind, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” – one referee had done his homework, the other had not. And the URC has a problem on its hands – it is a serious fault line, caused by the shortage of quality match officials.