When day breaks next Monday in the Land of the Rising Sun, we will have learnt a lot.
Some key matches will be over, including Ireland v Scotland (referee Wayne Barnes), New Zealand v South Africa (Jerome Garces) and France v Argentina (Angus Gardner. ) They should prove compelling.
For the referees, and their teams on the touchline and in the stand, as the weekend approaches the time for talking is over. Now it’s all about delivery and their performance. It is essential that they start well, and that any controversy is avoided.
The referees will have studied the teams and their style of play in all phases, and issues of concern will have been discussed with the relevant coaches.
Equally, each team coach and his backroom team will have parsed and analysed each referee – they will have studied each penalty they have given, and each penalty not given, over the past year. They will know how each referee approaches issues in the scrum, and what tolerance he has for players protecting the ball at the tackle.
They will also be aware of what level of chat each referee will accept and how best to approach him to query, or draw his attention, to an issue. A good relationship with both captains is equally important for both the referee and the teams involved.
Keith Wood, utilising his soft Limerick accent, was a master at referee “management”. At the same time, he kept the rest of his team quiet!
All of this acknowledges a certain truism – that no matter the drive for consistency in performance, some referees are better at certain things than others. Some are simply better.
An example of this came in Ireland’s win over Wales in Cardiff when the Irish were favoured at scrum-time, and seemed to be allowed to drive the Welsh scrum around without sanction.
So, what should we be looking for over the weekend?
First up is foul play with World Rugby reiterating their stance on high tackles and, if necessary, red cards will be delivered. The tackle framework is clear, if over-prescriptive, and the coaches and players must adjust. Nobody wants to see red cards, but player welfare demands that referees do not shirk their responsibilities.
I’m not so certain if the omens are good, with several leading coaches continuing to decry the red issued to Scott Barrett last month. As they did with tip tackles, and the taking out of players in the air, they need to think again on this one.
The tackle/ruck/breakdown area will be fiercely contested. Brutal.
Sam Warburton’s recent words are a timely reminder that rugby is one high-profile catastrophic injury away from inflicting lasting damage on itself.
The recently formed World Rugby group to review this whole area and to propose law changes is welcome. It’s more than a shame this wasn’t put in place some time ago, as we are going into a World Cup in high-risk mode.
Let us be very hopeful that when the final match is over we can look back at an event free from serious injury.
Will the referees have side entry high on their agenda or not? I make no apology for mentioning it again. It is completely outside the law, and it is not a fair contest (a key element of World Rubgy’s own Charter) when a poacher in a perfectly legal position can be sideswiped by 110 kilos travelling at speed.
Horrific knee injury
Its danger continues to be documented. In the U-20 World Championship a young Irish player received a horrific knee injury from a side entry yet the referee perfectly positioned did not call it.
New Zealand lock Brodie Retallick suffered a serious shoulder injury when he was careered out of a ruck in similar fashion, recently, one that is likely to keep him out of Saturday’s game against South Africa. And on it goes.
The scrum must be mentioned. It is probably too much to hope for that we will see a return to this being a contest for possession with the ball being thrown in straight. The current situation has become nothing less than farcical, with the scrumhalves now shovelling the ball in at right angles to the extent that if it went untouched it would come out the back of the scrum.
A change here would need the collective will of all the referees and a tournament environment would be the place to achieve it. It would not take too many sanctions to “straighten” things out.
Not forgetting that it is a full penalty to deliberately infringe any law, these put-ins cannot be considered accidental.
Another scrum issue to look at is the action of the defending team’s loose head prop. It is key that the referee keeps him straight – if he is allowed to drive across the scrum, the quality of possession is seriously diminished.
A new scrum directive, based on player safety, requiring the front rows not to lean onto each prior to engagement will be interesting to watch and see how it works.
A really important issue is that of space for players to attack, particularly at ruck. The blitz or rush defence presents a major difficulty for referees. Are the players on-side, are they off-side? It can be very tight. Sometimes the timing of the defence is perfect and, although it can look offside it is not. And don’t forget by the time the 9 passes and the next player receives, the defence can cover a lot of ground.
At other times the defence is clearly offside but it is not called. It needs the referee and the assistants to work together, both positioning themselves correctly to be able to look across and manage the defensive line. That doesn’t happen often enough.
The lineout presents no great problem to the referee, and it is a fair contest for possession. The maul is also refereed well and pretty consistently, with the proviso that infringements at an attacking driving maul, close to the opponent’s goal line, need to be fully sanctioned. Ireland had the perfect setup collapsed two metres away from the try line against Wales in Dublin, but no penalty try.
Finally, don’t forget that rugby is far from an easy game to referee. It is full of grey areas but the best referees manage to clear away most of the grey and bring clarity to their decision-making. These refs are the ones we’ll be watching over the coming weeks.
Here’s to a great tournament. Bring it on, impatience is growing.
Owen Doyle is a former Test referee and former director of referees with the IRFU. He will be writing for The Irish Times throughout the World Cup