Precedent everything when it comes to contentious TMO decisions
Unshackled Wales look set to pose Ireland problems when the Six Nations resumes
Eddie Jones has said rugby does not need retrospective refereeing decisions. Photograph: Steve Baston/PA
Warren Gatland decried a “terrible mistake” by the TMO after Wales’s defeat to England last weekend and prompted an admission from World Rugby that the law had not been properly applied when Gareth Anscombe beat Anthony Watson to the ball over England’s line at Twickenham.
The television match official Glenn Newman ruled that Anscombe had not properly grounded the ball before Watson did but after reviewing the 24th-minute incident World Rugby, whose head of referees, Alain Rolland, had spoken to Gatland, ruled that “in accordance with law 21.1b Wales should have been awarded a try as the Wales player grounded the ball”.
The law referred to defines grounding of the ball as “pressing down on it with a hand or hands, arm or arms, or the front of the player’s body from waist to neck”. The dictionary definition of the word to press is: “to move or cause to move into a position of contact with something by exerting continuous physical force”.
Anscombe struck the ball a glancing blow and repeated replays do not show evidence of any physical force, never mind continuous. It was one of those grey areas rugby union’s long list of laws and sub-clauses throws up: Scotland felt robbed of victory in the World Cup quarter-final when Australia were awarded a late penalty and World Rugby subsequently said that the referee Craig Joubert had been wrong.
There appeared to be an argument then for Joubert’s decision, just as there is for Newman’s, but World Rugby has now established a precedent for future groundings. Just as scrum feeds no longer have to go straight down the middle and forward passes are ruled to be within the laws if the movement of the distributor’s hands points backwards, so the grounding of a ball over the goal-line now involves a hand or hands being brought downwards on the ball and making contact, however slight.
Newman is entitled to feel aggrieved because if there had been a mistake, it was not blatant and the wording of the relevant law did not conclusively back up World Rugby’s pronouncement, which was only made after Wales made public the details of the conversation between Rolland and Gatland.
The England head coach Eddie Jones quickly intervened, saying that the game did not need retrospective refereeing decisions. “We’ve got to trust the referees and respect their integrity,” he said. “That involves the TV process as well. One of the traditions of rugby is that you get on with it. I am sure Wales are upset about it – and I can understand why – but the game’s gone.”
Had Newman told the referee Jérôme Garcès he could award the try, the attention afterwards would have turned to the Wales wing Steff Evans who hacked on Rhys Patchell’s chip. Did the ball graze the fingers of the Wales wing before dropping on to his leg? Any mistake then would not have been seized on by Wales.
After the match, Jones took a detached view on decisions made by TMOs, saying you had to trust them the make the right calls. England have had reviews going their way in recent matches, but there will come a Test when the call is not in their favour. That may force a different reaction from Jones who rounded on a radio reporter after the victory over Wales, excoriating over the media’s treatment of his full-back, Mike Brown, Saturday’s man of the match.
“You guys tell me he can’t play Test rugby, now you tell me he’s good,” said Jones, whose nerves seemed to be provoking electric shocks after a victory that was far closer than he would have envisaged at one point. “Fair dinkum, you guys are unbelievable. You’re always criticising him and now he has a good game you are all on the bandwagon. I am sick of it. You guys are better selectors than we are; that’s what you think you are.”
It brought to mind media criticism of Chris Robshaw during the last World Cup, when one newspaper columnist’s back row for the make-or-break match against Australia did not include England’s then-captain. “To me, Robshaw is an outstanding club player, but at international level he just doesn’t have that point of difference. He carries OK, he tackles OK, but he’s not outstandingly good in any area. I think that is his limiting factor.”
Jones has always said it as he sees it, as he did in the build-up to the Wales match when he made sure Patchell would be thinking not just about Wales’s gameplan, and in essence there is nothing wrong in World Rugby holding officials to account when clear mistakes have been made.
Many in the capacity 82,000 crowd paid a three-figure sum for a ticket, and that was before the scalpers offered them for sale. While the majority would not have taken issue with Newman’s decision, those who did paid for the right to be told. And it has been made clear that what matters is not the wording of a law but precedent.
The disallowed try was not the difference between the sides at Twickenham, but it may have made an absorbing encounter all the more intriguing. Wales, who fielded an internationally raw back three and lost the kicking game, look rejuvenated and are playing with a flourish that will keep Ireland’s analysts busy in the coming days.
England have become a side in the image of their head coach, scrapping for everything and determined to have the last word. Sam Underhill’s tackle on Scott Williams highlighted the difference between new England and old, driven on by a man for whom good is not enough.