Loose Pass: Refereeing exchanges, card consistency and welcome to Europe, South Africa

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with refereeing exchanges, running the rule over some card consistency and some terrific irony…

Away games

Loose Pass cannot watch all the games in a normal club weekend of course, but was pleasantly surprised to see Luke Pearce practicing his French in the pouring rain in Clermont-Ferrand, followed shortly after by Craig Evans officiating in some equally atrocious weather in Toulouse.

Later, there was Christophe Ridley in Dublin, as well as Ben Blain braving Johannesburg’s rarefied air on Sunday. A quick look around the remarkably useful rugbyreferees.net website revealed that this was all a part of the planning ahead of the European weekend, with referees given one or two cross-border assignments to prepare themselves both for the differing conditions and nuances in the respective rugby cultures over the coming fortnight.

A hugely commendable initiative thus continues – this is not the first time it has happened – and all those on cross-border duty in France clearly enjoyed themselves despite the biblical weather that spent the weekend drenching the country. A shame then, that so few South African and French officials seem to be making the return journeys: there was only one from each country abroad this weekend while there is not a single South African referee on duty in week one of the Champions Cup.

But there has been a curious trend in France. Romain Poite’s high-profile move to Toulon as a consultant came at the end of Mr. Poite’s days in the middle, but there have been several less prominent refereeing names doing the same thing. Alex Ruiz was just 35 years old when he joined Montpellier, Max Chalon has recently joined Brive. France continues to produce some very good officials, but it seems the lure of clubs’ money is proving stronger than the lure of staying in the middle.

But there is little doubt that we are currently enjoying a superb generation of referees, absolutely being given a lift by the initiatives such as that from the weekend past. Hopefully all the countries can use the opportunities to help their officials develop further.

On reds and yellows

Fine this generation of officials may be, but the calls can still perplex. In both Bristol’s thrilling draw with Leicester and the Scarlets’ defeat to the Lions there were pairs of calls which had different outcomes and we just don’t know why.

We’d perhaps do better to start with the more perplexing of the two examples, because the difference between the tackles was clearer and also because the referee seemed to take far more direct charge of the decisions without enough recourse to the TMO.

Sam Costelow sees a pass coming in his direction intercepted, and flings out his arm to stop the opponent progressing. In real time, it looked a seat-belt tackle, but in slow motion you can clearly see his forearm making contact with the opponent’s face. The opponent was stooped into the point of contact and Costelow’s was a reflex move, indeed you can see in the slow motion he pulls his arm back as he realises.

Still, the laws are as they are and so yellow was probably right. Head contact, mitigation, off you go for ten.

But perplexing in the extreme was the lack of any form of censure for the tackle on Vaea Fifita by Darrien Landsberg. That Fifita’s nose was badly broken is neither here nor there: Landsberg swung his arm. There was contact with the face. Fifita was stooped into the contact and was also dealing with the tackle by one of Landsberg’s team-mates, but his running line did not deviate. Landsberg’s was not a reflex reaction either, nor did he make the tackle with any part of his shoulder, it was pure forearm into face. Unintentional, but no official or game law is there to judge intention. Poor technique, as we have often said, needs to be punished.

That Mr. Blain saw it as an accident is forgivable initially, there were many moving parts in the situation. But that there was nothing from the TMO? Subsequently, Jonathan Davies asked the same question, to which Mr. Blain responded by saying that they had ‘looked at it’, but it was difficult to believe that there had been a proper analysis as the directives dictate, moving from head contact down. Somewhere, between TMO and referee, the job was not done properly and the Scarlets got a really rough deal from it.

Yet even when the job is done right, doubts, remain. Semi Radradra’s missile-like shooting out of line had huge potential to end badly and so it proved, with his swinging arm sending stars into the vision of Freddie Burns.

We understand Burns was stooped as well, that there was an element of mitigation. But Burns had also stepped slightly before he stooped. Radradra did not have time to stop, nor avoid a collision, but he had time to stop his arm swinging with the force that it did, had time to pull out of that part of the contact. A pure collision could have been mitigated, but a swinging arm with force to the head? That sends the recipient for an HIA? Surely that has to be red?

As if to prove a point: Thomas van Wyk’s red card for Leicester was the clearest of the moments we’re talking about. He also had time to set himself to meet the collision right, he also didn’t take it – and his tackle did far less damage than Radradra’s or Landsberg’s.

Head contact continues to be a minefield. But we have to keep working on it.

Say what?

A fabulous moment of irony on scanning the South African press last week: one column opined that perhaps the URC had served its use to South Africa already? After all, what’s the point in teams playing a load of domestic games without your best players during the international windows?

Welcome to Europe, sir. We’ve been doing that for decades. You didn’t know?

READ MORE: South Africa’s welcome pack to Europe: Understanding the Champions Cup