Jerome Garces used common sense to only give Ashley Johnson a yellow

Even though it was the same as Jared Payne’s red card, two wrongs don’t make a right

Wasps’ Ashley Johnson stands over Leinster’s Dave Kearney before being sin binned in the first minute of the Champions Cup match at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA

Would you be a referee? I wouldn’t. There’s too many players like me to deal with, for a start. Fellas who will try anything and everything, push things as far as they can. And then when a game is over, you have to sit down and write a report on yourself – how you think you did, where you went right, where you went wrong, different categories for the assessor to look at. You have to be a certain type of person to do all that and enjoy it.

And then there’s the supporters and the media. If you’re doing it at the highest level, you can be sure you’ll never go too long without somebody having a go at you. You’ll get it from the crowd at every game and if you make a mistake in a high-profile one you’ll be hammered in the press.

Jerome Garces has come in for a good kicking after the weekend. And in a way, rightly so. It's impossible to look at the yellow card he gave Ashley Johnson for taking out Dave Kearney in the air on Saturday and not think of the red card he gave Jared Payne for the same sort of incident in last year's quarter-final.

The two pieces of play were almost mirror images of each other. They were both incredibly early in the game – Johnson’s hit was in the first minute, Payne’s was in the fourth. You couldn’t argue that either one was really malicious – although at least Payne had his head up looking for the ball whereas Johnson’s seemed to be down as he ran into Kearney. They both ended the game for the player they hit. And yet the same referee decided one was a red card and one was a yellow.


I actually think the standard of refereeing has improved this year. Rugby is so complex now. So much of it is interpretation – off your feet, in from the side, pushing early in the scrum. It’s possible to argue about almost every decision.

Common sense

But I think more and more there’s a lot of common sense being used this season. Go back to last year and one of the things that just didn’t sit right with people was the new interpretation of the forward pass. People were watching passes that obviously went forward being waved on because the referees were told to look out for a backward motion of the passer’s hands.

It was a classic case of common sense being thrown out the window. The technical argument was probably correct but it just looked wrong. You can’t have the whole stadium knowing they’ve seen a forward pass but being told it was actually legally fine. And it’s been noticeable that this season, it’s gone back to the way it was before.

Common sense is the way forward. You see it a lot as well with the TMO. Again, last season there was a lot of messing about, taking ages to go back over passages of play in the run up to tries. There were a lot of referrals that didn’t need to be done and teething problems like some grounds not having big screens. But we’ve moved on from that this season as well.

I had this conversation with Nigel Owens last year when there was a lot of stuff in the media about the new TMO regulations. There were people play-acting and captains getting onto to referees to make them go back and look at different incidents. He did feel that referees were losing that natural instinct to make decisions themselves. They were copping out at times and using the TMO when they didn’t really need to.

What you see a lot more is referees being confident and making their own decisions. That’s how it should be. It stands to reason that a TMO isn’t going to be as good a referee as the guy on the pitch with the whistle.

Referees needed to stand up for themselves a bit. More and more now you hear them asking the TMO the question: “Is there any reason why I can’t award a try?” That’s a big difference to them going upstairs and asking: “Try or no try?”

By asking if there is any reason not to award a try, referees take the responsibility on themselves. I think a lot of supporters were getting fed up with them relying too much on the video ref. You don’t see as many of these long, drawn-out referrals to the TMO, looking through loads of angles and phases to nitpick a way to disallow a try. They look at a couple of camera angles and very often just tell the TMO that they’ve seen enough themselves on the big screen to go ahead.

Players never really think that a referee is out to do them. But they would never believe it’s a totally straightforward relationship either. There are always shades of grey. That’s why a referee who is confident and assured in his decisions will find the game easier to control. If players smell weakness, they’ll think a referee can be swayed.

But every team has its own view on every referee. Chris White was an English referee who did a lot of Munster games when I was playing. For whatever reason, we always thought that he was a good referee for us to get. Whatever way he saw the breakdown or liked the game to be played, it suited our way of playing.

Whenever we saw Chris White’s name on the fixture list, it was a small boost to the confidence. But in the build-up to a Heineken Cup match, you’re dying to find any little edge. Chris White was a positive not a negative. Or so we thought. After a while, there was a shift. Maybe it was familiarity breeding contempt but after a while, we felt he went the other way on us.

He gave penalties against us for things he had previously let go. I wouldn’t be able to nail down an exact year but I do remember us talking about it and going, ‘Nothing is going our way with this guy’.

And you know what? I bet that in his mind nothing changed. I’d say if he read this he’d be wondering what the hell I was going on about. We probably just relaxed a bit and assumed something that didn’t exist in the first place and then got a bit thrown when decisions didn’t go our way. No wonder people aren’t queueing up to be referees!

It's such a tough job. People say you should just stick to the letter of the law in each situation and you'll be okay but the game doesn't work like that. Take Richie Vernon's brilliant try for Glasgow over the weekend – in the build-up to it there was a ruck in which Glasgow's Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa lifted a Bath player's leg up in the air at the breakdown.

It looked like quite a dangerous clean-out. The touch judge put out his flag and the referee John Lacey went over and spoke to him. They went to the TMO to check for foul play and it looked like there was a chance the try could have been called back. But in the end, they agreed that there wasn't enough in it to stop Lacey awarding the try – although he did have a quiet word with Nakarawa on the way back out. The decision was made on the basis of common sense and a brilliant try was allowed to stand.

Red card

All this brings us back to Jerome Garces and his decision not to red card Ashley Johnson on Saturday. I’ve been trying to look at the incident in isolation and trying to pretend the Jared Payne thing never happened – even though literally the first thing that came into my mind when it happened was that red card that ruined Ulster’s season. It’s so difficult because the oldest cliché in the book is true – all you want from referees in consistency.

But if we take it on its own merits, you have to say that the yellow card is probably the right call. I have total sympathy with what Matt O’Connor said after the game – that it doesn’t seem right that Leinster will lose their player for over a month whereas Wasps lost theirs for 10 minutes. And by the letter of the law, a red would have been justified, the same as Payne’s was.

Johnson’s shoulder charge was clumsy and stupid. He wasn’t deliberately trying to take a player out in the air. He should have taken more care than he did but there was no intent there to injure Dave Kearney. It would have been a very unfair thing for Wasps to have to overcome if they’d had to play nearly the full 80 minutes with 14 against 15.

Just because Ulster had to do it doesn’t mean it would have been right for Wasps to have to do it. My instinct was that if Payne’s is a red card, then Johnson’s should be a red card. We can’t on the one hand argue – as I did last year – that Payne shouldn’t have been sent off and then on the other decide that Johnson should have. It’s not just referees that should be consistent.

It’s tough on Ulster and it’s fair to say Garces must have had the Payne incident in his mind. I think he knew he’d made the wrong call last year and didn’t want to do it again. But I think he used common sense and the downside of common sense is that sometimes referees are going to be a bit more lenient and it might be your team that suffers as a result. So, do we want common sense or don’t we?