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Owen Doyle: Full ramifications of uncontested scrum law an accident waiting to happen

To have anything written into law which reduces a team to 13 for one red card is daft

As we look eastwards towards the terrifying events in Ukraine, we are reminded of everything which is truly important.

Nonetheless, rugby over the weekend gave our worried minds much-needed distraction. It won’t have been so for those people fleeing their homeland, or facing horrific bombardment; it’s not much to offer, but all our thoughts must be with them.

Ireland v Italy. The law can be unfit for purpose, a veritable ass, but the Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli was right, no option. But, to have anything written into law which reduces a team to 13 for one red card is just daft.

This part of the uncontested scrum law has been sitting there for quite a few years, an accident waiting to happen. I can remember well being part of a very vigorous argument against its introduction, but the prevailing view was that it was more important to stop teams cynically contriving uncontested scrums against stronger opposition. And, that anyway, it was unlikely to happen once the ‘down to 13’ law was actually in place. Eh, time to think again.


Having lost starting hooker, Gianmarco Lucchesi, to injury, his replacement, Hame Faiva, was sent off – so, that's down to 14. Then, when the next scrum came along, because Italy were responsible for this phase becoming uncontested, they were obliged to drop another player, and, hey presto, that's 13 – farcical, unfair.

The only way Italy could have stayed at 13 was if they had another suitably trained and experienced hooker available. For important safety reasons front row positions have become very specialised, so that was never likely to be on the cards.

Amashukeli had a good match, a lesser man, in his first Six Nations outing, might have wilted in the circumstances. With perfect English he is a very well organised referee and we will see a lot more of him.

He could, though, have avoided reducing Italy to 12 players for a deliberate knock-on; but, conversely, another card was necessary for the scything late hit on James Lowe, after he had scored.

France got a few 'soft' penalties by holding their jumper in the air, whereas he must be brought to ground without delay

Murrayfield gave us an exhilarating display by the French, their free-flowing and exciting approach put all of six tries past the hapless Scots. Of course, there was that extraordinary five-minute period, straddling half-time, which impacted events hugely.

Stuart Hogg butchered a nailed on try, just before half-time, and, while he was still cursing his fumbling fingers, Gael Fickou hammered in a try for France, a mighty 14-point swing in fortunes.

Then, things had barely restarted after the break when Jonathan Danty streaked in for yet another try, and the Scots will certainly ask referee Karl Dickson all about this one. France won the ball after it had been lost at the back of a ruck by Ally Price, but it certainly didn't look as if Cameron Woki had rolled away sufficiently to allow Price unfettered possession.

Expansive game plan

Woki was then, in law, out of the game until he got up. But he hadn’t quite done so when he reclaimed the ball, and popped it up for France to launch the scoring attack from their own ‘22’.

While that five minutes was fairly vital, it didn't mean that Scotland would otherwise have been in control. France were on top in the coaches' box too with an expansive game plan, whereas the home team approach, curiously, offered little.

Once again, Scotland were the villains of the piece at scrum time, fully demonstrated by refusing to play the ball away from a scrum on the touchline with acres of space out wide across the pitch. Instead, their only wish was to force a penalty – it’s impossible to have any sympathy.

France got a few ‘soft’ penalties by holding their jumper in the air, whereas he must be brought to ground without delay. That’s the law, and the referee had a certain amount of wool pulled over his eyes here.

England and Wales have provided many turgid, torrid, encounters and we certainly got one in Twickenham. We also had a referee performance which was, unhappily, not at the level required for this assignment. Many had been surprised at the appointment. Mike Adamson, who we know from the URC, did not look comfortable and was hesitant at times.

Side entry at the tackle-ruck has quite rightly been given a lot of referee attention recently, but not in this match

Very early on he clearly whistled a penalty against Wales in the scrum, but then did a complete about turn, with the decision going against England. The clock was winding down when Kieran Hardy tapped a quick penalty and headed in for a Welsh try, Adamson was strangely very slow to react, but awarded the score.

It seemed Hardy had taken the quick tap well to the left of the mark, and it looked the same as Tomos Williams’ quick tap in the opening minutes, when he was whistled back as he crossed the line. One try allowed, another similar effort chalked off. Why, beats me?

Over to the scrums, and we are still waiting for a referee to be completely intolerant of continuous collapses, maybe one day, but not today.

Breakdown area

Side entry at the tackle-ruck has quite rightly been given a lot of referee attention recently, but not in this match. As far as I can remember, not one was penalised, eventually I gave up counting; Wales are bound to look for answers in the breakdown area.

When Wales overthrew a very defensive lineout, it looked initially like rugby's equivalent of a footballing own goal as Alex Dombrandt seized both the moment, and the ball, to crash over. But Welsh players were immediately livid, and a closer review – unfortunately, not by the officials – pointed to Welsh jumper Adam Beard being nudged aside by Maro Itoje. Having already publicly stated his view, Welsh coach Wayne Pivac will pose a very hard-to-answer question.

That score put England into a 17-0 lead, from which they utterly failed to kick-on. Instead, Wales mounted a terrific revival, losing at the death by just four points; England’s Dombrandt try, don’t forget, was worth five. It was also, somewhat pathetically, their only try, whereas Wales crossed for three.

Roll on rounds four and five; they will be intense, thrilling. Here’s hoping that the players, not the match officials, or an insane law, decide things.

Owen Doyle

Owen Doyle

Owen Doyle, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a former Test referee and former director of referees at the Irish Rugby Football Union