Rugby Stats: Stuart Berry's refereeing of the breakdown will be key

South African referee may be hands-off at the breakdown as Leinster take on Scarlets

South African referee Stuart Berry: Will rely on input from his officiating team in making decisions. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

South African referee Stuart Berry: Will rely on input from his officiating team in making decisions. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

South Africa’s Stuart Berry, in his first season officiating in the Guinness Pro14, has been chosen to referee Saturday’s final between defending champions the Scarlets and the Champions Cup winners Leinster at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (6.0).

In doing so, he’ll take charge of his 14th game in the tournament, signifying a rehabilitation of sorts in officiating terms for the 35-year-old, who endured a difficult time in his latter days in Super Rugby before dropping out of the refereeing roster ahead of the 2017 competition. He was the subject of stinging criticism following a couple of Lions matches in 2014 and another Lions game in 2016 against the Stormers.

After making his debut in 2012, he refereed 26 Super Rugby matches and also 11 Tests. He became the first South African to referee a major playoff match in northern hemisphere club rugby when he took charge of last weekend’s semi-final between Leinster and Munster at the RDS. His appointment brings to an end a run of four consecutive finals in the tournament over which Nigel Owens has presided.

When not officiating he, along with Andrew van Rensburg, runs the Impi Concept Events company in his native South Africa, which, while providing many services, advertises that it is “the biggest music promoter” in KwaZulu-Natal.

Acclimatisation

Berry’s first match in the Pro14 was the Round Two game in which Edinburgh beat the Dragons 35-18. The South African awarded 35 penalties in total, with the home side conceding one fewer, 17. There was always going to be an acclimatisation process between the disparate demands in refereeing in the Super Rugby and Pro14 tournaments.

The lowball figure came in another contest in which the Scottish club were involved, the cumulative total was nine penalties when Edinburgh (they conceded six) beat the Scarlets (three) 52-14 at Murrayfield.  

In 13 matches he’s awarded 264 penalties at an average of just over 20 per game, with the home team prevailing on nine occasions – albeit three of the four away wins were against the Southern Kings. Visiting teams have conceded 136 penalties to 128 by their hosts, but the breakdown in match terms is interesting: the home side has conceded more penalties than their opponents on five occasions, with just one match – when Edinburgh visited the Southern Kings – finishing with a tied penalty count, 10-10.

The team that has conceded fewer penalties when examining the aforementioned 13 games has triumphed eight times – one tied penalty count – but in that specific context only twice has been it the away side.

Berry has refereed Saturday’s Pro14 finalists on five occasions this season. The South African took charge when the Scarlets beat the Cardiff Blues 30-17, when the Welsh club scraped past the Southern Kings 34-30, and also in their 52-14 defeat to Edinburgh at Murrayfield. Leinster’s record under Berry is balanced at 1-1, losing 31-21 to the Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun while sneaking past Munster 16-15 in last weekend’s semi-final.

Fewer penalties

Irrespective of the results, in the five matches listed, Leinster and the Scarlets have conceded fewer penalties than their opponents in each game, the Irish province not racking up double figures in either contest, a trend they’d dearly love to continue.      

Berry will lead a team of neutral match officials, with Marius Mitrea (Italy) and Mike Adamson (Scotland) appointed as assistant referees, while Neil Paterson (Scotland) will serve as the television match official, and the South African’s style of refereeing is to rely on/encourage, depending on perspective, input from his officiating team.

An overview from the Leinster semi-final is that Berry is pretty “laissez-faire” when it comes to the breakdown, certainly in permitting a contest for the ball and only intervening when he deems the offence blatant, was tolerant of “lazy runners”and also of several “clear-outs” that should have been punished but were not. The latter is likely to have been pointed out to him in the interim.

Leinster won the breakdown in the Champions Cup semi-final win over the Scarlets but the Welsh side knows they can’t afford to let that happen again; denying the Irish province quick ball is the key to negating their attacking brio.

The South African referee was clear in his preferences at scrum time, and allowed the defending team some encouragement when it came to splintering mauls. So what to expect? Somewhere in the region of 20 penalties, and a willingness to include his assistants in the decision-making process.   

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