Referee watch: Garces’s interpretations may be more to Lions’ liking

The French official is an excellent communicator, especially during set piece play

Everyone is conditioned by their environment and that includes rugby referees. Jaco Peyper, who was in charge for last weekend’s first Test match between New Zealand and the Lions in Auckland, predominantly officiates in the southern hemisphere, where both in style and substance, interpretation tends to favour the attacking team.

There is a preference for a fast moving game, where the officiating at most contact points appears to be parsed from that perspective, scrum, lineout and rucks, even allowing for an element of generalisation. A classic illustration is the breakdown, an area that the All Blacks dominated, by common consent, last weekend.

Peyper verbally dissuaded the Lions players from looking to get hands on the ball in an effort to slow down New Zealand possession with Seán O’Brien in particular ordered to let-go a nanosecond before he looked like pilfering a ball or two; all the while recognising that New Zealand were more accurate and effective in ball presentation and clear-outs and that Sam Cane’s positioning and poaching was exemplary.

Lions coach Warren Gatland identified this aspect of the game as a huge source of concern ahead of the second Test, bringing in Sam Warburton ahead of Peter O'Mahony, something that seems harsh, based on tour performances to date. On the evidence of the Chiefs and Hurricanes matches Justin Tipuric might have a greater claim for a place on Saturday.

Gatland decided against playing his most effective hooker at the breakdown, Rory Best, and in also deciding against giving Iain Henderson a place in the 23, removing an in-form player, who has forced turnovers and carried superbly.

South African official Peyper was less fastidious about the blocking of players chasing high balls, and unless a side was immediately going forward at scrums and lineout mauls, he urged the team in possession to move the ball away from the set piece.

On Saturday, France's Jerome Garces, will preside over the second Test. His interpretation will most likely be different, demonstrating as much when he refereed the Lions' 34-6 victory over the Chiefs earlier in the tour. Generally speaking he allows a contest for the ball at the breakdown.

There are a couple of things he won’t tolerate in this area of the game. In a combined penalty count of 21 in that match, he awarded six for players not releasing or rolling away following a tackle. He is also very strict about penalising (three times) a player who, at a ruck, puts his hand on the ground beyond the ball and then uses a backward scooping motion.

In the verbal jostling ahead of matches on the tour to date the Lions have pointed to what they considering illegal blocking of players chasing box-kicks and dinks over the top. To this end Garces warned a Chiefs player specifically about this in one instance and then on another occasion gave a penalty when Jack Nowell was impeded chasing a Garryowen.

The French official also takes a very definite stance when it comes to the scrum, rewarding the Lions’ dominance with three penalties. Unlike Peyper he’s happy to wait for a couple of seconds if there’s an initial impasse in terms of movement. He’s an excellent communicator in general but especially at scrum time letting the players known exactly what he wants before and, at times, during a contest.

The same is true of the lineout maul, where Garces will permit the attacking team several seconds to coordinate the drive. He’s not afraid to award the double whammy of penalty try and yellow card as he demonstrated when the Chiefs collapsed a lineout maul that was heading for the whitewash.

Given the greater prevalence of the ‘choke tackle’ in northern hemisphere rugby he is more likely to blow up immediately players collapse to the ground, awarding a scrum turnover, than say Peyper, who will permit the attacking team a couple of seconds to free the ball from the tangled flesh.

Assistant referees, Peyper and Romain Poite, who takes charge of the third Test, also have an input into calling infringements as does the TMO, Australian George Ayoub. But in Garces the Lions have a referee who understands the style and substance of northern hemisphere teams; this time it will be the All Blacks that may have to adapt.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer