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Owen Doyle: Referee Luke Pearce far from perfect in fraught final

Referee was never far from the centre of attention, some of his own making, some not

The US defence secretary under President George W Bush was Donald Rumsfeld. He famously informed us about his "known unknowns", and also his "unknown unknowns". According to his lexicon, these are things we know we don't know; and things we don't know we don't know. Confusing, maybe not?

As Ronan O'Gara and Jono Gibbes unpick what happened at Twickenham, they may well find themselves searching for the answers to the unknowns of La Rochelle's first major final. The most critical moment came when Luke Pearce, quite rightly, red-carded Levani Botia, and La Rochelle had to play for an hour with 14 men. The incident was well handled.

It will never be known if Botia had behaved and remained whether the result would have been otherwise. O’Gara, who admitted that his team was not as accurate as the occasion demanded, has some other really valid questions to ask.

Nevertheless, as the end approached, La Rochelle had regained the ascendancy and were pushing hard for a match-winning seven-pointer

Later on, Toulouse had a leading shoulder of their own, former Connacht player Pita Ahki hitting into Gregory Alldritt. After review Pearce indicated that the contact was to the chest, whereas it appeared to be more clearly to the neck, without having the very significant force which Botia had applied.


Real difference

La Rochelle, no doubt, would have liked player numbers to have been equal again, for even 10 minutes, which should have been the case. We’ll never know what might have happened.

There was a clear difference in place-kicking. Romain Ntamack missed nothing, including a very soft penalty against Will Skelton. But La Rochelle’s Ihaia West missed three – would they, total value of eight points, have made the necessary difference in the heel of the hunt?

In the overall scheme of things perhaps Ntamack was the real difference; added to accuracy off the tee was his wondrous floated pass, leading to a superb try from Juan Cruz Mallía.

Nevertheless, as the end approached, La Rochelle had regained the ascendancy and were pushing hard for a match-winning seven-pointer. Ntamack went to ground with the ball, having mistimed the clock, he realised that he couldn’t kick the ball dead, not quite yet. It seemed that he definitely failed to release, but no whistle from Pearce. Considering the penalties that had been given before, one crucial decision went missing here.

It had all originated at a Toulouse defensive ruck on their “22”. The referee was not well positioned, as the ball was fired back to Ntamack , he remained static at the position of the ruck, not moving back with the pass. This put all of 20 metres between referee and player and, as things developed, Pearce had a heck of a job getting back into position. The penalty decision here would have presented a vital attacking line-out to La Rochelle, the outcome of which, of course, remains unknown.

All we want is for clear and obvious material offences to be refereed accurately, and play on to stuff that doesn't matter

The “unknown unknown”, in these last seconds, was whether or not the referee had mentally switched off, assuming that it was game over. Not just players, but referees also must play to the whistle.

This column had hoped last week for referees to be invisible, but Pearce was never far from the centre of attention, some of his own making, some not, and he will have plenty to reflect upon, in terms of this performance.

Early on, he provided little or no oxygen, no flow, to the match, everything was whistled up; while all we want is for clear and obvious material offences to be refereed accurately, and play on to stuff that doesn’t matter.

There was a nasty undertone during the first half, the referee visibly under pressure as he just about kept the lid on things, but it was not easy. The huge intensity coupled with the lack of any player co-operation may have come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have.

So, while probably most Irish men (though not, of course, the famous Brennan family of Toulouse) supported O'Gara's team, it was indeed Toulouse who carried off the Champions Cup for a record fifth time. We can but stand and applaud both the team and their coach, Ugo Mola.

Magical moments

In the Challenge Cup final, Montpellier, thankfully, produced a couple of magical moments to brighten things up for the neutral observer. First up, was Vincent Rattez deftly managing to foot-flick the ball over the Leicester line, and then magically getting a hand in between those of defender Matías Moroni. TMO Brian MacNeice confirming Leicester's worst fears that Rattez had definitely reached the ball first.

The second half saw a high-speed break-out by Montpellier’s flying wing, Gabriel N’Gandebe, quick interpassing followed before the ball reached Johan Goosen, who finished off a spectacular move. If just for that, and the Rattez moment, Montpellier deserved to win, just by a point, 18-17.

Leicester had come to Twickenham with a game plan meticulously prepared by former England forwards coach, now in charge at Welford Road, Steve Borthwick.

His prescription was pure simplicity – kick and maul, repeat as required; so, George Ford kicked incessantly and the forwards mauled, then mauled again. It was boringly effective, and Montpellier had no idea how to shore things up. Well, they did, but it was all by foul collapsing means, many were illegally brought to ground.

Andrew Brace has a tendency to over-warn before producing necessary yellow-card sanctions, and Montpellier can count themselves very lucky that he produced only two, one in each half, to Alexandre Bécognée, and then to captain Guilhem Guirado.

Considering that both their tries came with Montpellier reduced to 14, Leicester are bound to ask a serious question. But, Brace came out of the match well. Yes, there were some inaccuracies which he’ll need to review; and also his positioning prior to Harry Wells’s try, he will know that he was fortunate to see that touch down.

Finally, as the Lions tour approaches we will shortly know the referee appointments, the three Test matches are of crucial importance. The French will undoubtedly be represented and led, I imagine, by Mathieu Raynal; referees in New Zealand and Australia may also be hopeful of receiving a call.

Whoever is chosen, we must wish them well. It will not be easy.