Rugby World Cup: The seven referees in contention to officiate the 2023 Final
For rugby officials, their career pinnacle is being appointed to deliver a World Cup Final. With the ever-increasing scrutiny from the media and the authorities on the man in the middle, nothing less than a flawless performance would be considered acceptable.
In order to place context around this, obviously, nothing can be set in stone before the finalists are known – as appointments are also effectively ‘cup tied’ in terms of nationality.
World Rugby also take into consideration fairness across the nations to ensure that each nationality gets a fair slice of the cake, and they will also consider the length of service as a Test referee, as well as the obvious subjective and objective performance ratings from each game and the ratings during the tournament itself.
Planet Rugby’s James While delivers his verdict on the seven referees in contention for the biggest match of all.
Wayne Barnes – England
Barnes has become a magnificent referee who will encourage fast and dynamic rugby. With England, on form, unlikely to get to the final, his name will be in the process, of that it’s certain. Does he have a tendency to react swiftly? Sometimes, for sure – but his preparation and pre-match team communication is so outstanding that World Rugby builds a lot of their prep model around Barnes’ thinking.
With Barnes also close to fluent in French, that would stand in his favour should the hosts make the final, as World Rugby will be keen to ensure fairness of on-pitch communication. Standing against him is the depth of feeling from New Zealand over his handling of historic Test matches, but that’s believed to be water under the bridge, and Barnes has 15 years of outstanding work to amplify his case.
Barnes is also likely to hang up his Test whistle post-tournament, and given his huge contribution to the international arena and to rugby itself, we believe he’s the evens favourite, especially given that only one English referee has ever officiated in a final – Ed Morrison in 1995.
Ben O’Keeffe – New Zealand
Like Barnes, O’Keeffe is bilingual with near fluent French and has a history of big appointments, including Lions Test matches. O’Keefe has experience with big finals at domestic level and was appointed to referee the final of Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2021 and the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific in 2022 which he was credited for in his handling of two controversial moments.
With 36 internationals under his belt, he was a key figure at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, elected as the youngest referee in Japan. He went on to referee three pool games, as well as being an assistant referee in the knockout stages. He went on to be a match official in all play-off matches, including the final, England vs South Africa, where he was one of the assistants.
He was the New Zealand Referee of the Year in 2018 and 2021, but standing in his way is his own beloved All Blacks, a team with a good chance of making a fifth World Cup Final.
Nika Amashukeli – Georgia
Given his relative lack of experience (19 Tests) and age (28), Amashukeli is a bolter for refereeing the final, but a very realistic one. Very much one of the most powerful advocates of Georgia’s emergence as a rugby-loving nation, Amashukeli is an outstanding and detailed referee with a deep knowledge of the laws, as evidenced by his brilliant call against Joe Marler in the Quins v Sharks match in January.
As his career has progressed, his ability to listen to his team of officials and to reach outcomes via consensus has become outstanding, shown by his use of assistant referees and TMOs to get the correct decisions on red cards in the recent France versus Scotland match.
World Rugby are considered big fans of the brilliant Georgian official and, in terms of inclusion, are anxious to see him progress further. In addition, Amashukeli speaks four languages, which is a real asset.
This might be a tournament too early for him, given it’s his first World Cup, but his growing reputation and powerful officiating could see his appointment if he performs in the earlier stages of the tournament itself.
Angus Gardner – Australia
Gardner certainly polarises opinion on his interpretation of the breakdown but he consistently gets the big calls right, and it’s said that both players and coaches appreciate his empathy and his calm explanations under pressure on the pitch.
With 37 Tests and two World Cups under his belt, ‘Gus’ won the World Rugby Referee of the Year in 2018, testimony to his consistency and excellence.
Word has it that he consistently outscores his colleagues at World Rugby laws training sessions and takes huge pride in both his nuanced understanding and application of them during Tests.
If two of France, New Zealand and England meet in the final, you can bet your money that Gus will be in the mix and rightly so.
Luke Pearce – England
Another bilingual referee in a tournament held in France, Pearce’s charisma and charm are a feature of any match he participates in.
In the 2018 mid-year rugby union internationals, he took charge of his first tier 1 vs tier 1 game, and in 2021 he took charge of his first all-southern hemisphere international, Australia v South Africa, with one commentator remarking it was a pleasure to hear a new voice in Australian rugby.
Like Amashukeli, relative inexperience might hold Pearce back. Also, there may be a perceived pecking order between both Englishmen, Barnes and Pearce, that would see the former preferred, given that it’s to be his last major tournament.
Nevertheless, Pearce remains a contender and has every reason to deliver his very best in the group stages to create a compelling case for appointment in the final.
Thought Luke Pearce had a great game today.
You're never going to see everything or have people agree with every decision you make as a referee.
However, of the decisions Pearce did make, he made them promptly and clearly.
Quickly becoming rugby's best referee for me pic.twitter.com/R6ZAGyLStL
— EK Rugby Analysis (@ek_rugby) September 12, 2021
Paul Williams – New Zealand
One of the most accurate and consistent referees in rugby, a number of top Test coaches, including Eddie Jones, have commented that he is one of the best in the world, despite a career of only eight internationals.
Williams started refereeing in 2011 while still playing at half-back at club level and was appointed to the New Zealand high-performance referee squad in 2014.
He quickly rose up the domestic ranks, ultimately becoming a full-time referee on the Super Rugby panel in 2016, the first ever from Taranaki.
Williams refereed the 2016 World Rugby U20 Championship final between England and Ireland in June 2017. Williams then took charge of his first international match, the clash between Italy and Scotland in Singapore. He confesses he’s started learning French, an essential move if he wants to match the very best around.
His blockers include the excellence of countryman Ben O’Keeffe and, again, the fact it’s his first World Cup. Nevertheless, he is an outstanding official and one that cannot be discounted.
Matthieu Raynal – France
Raynal might polarise opinion, but he is still a world-class official and a known quantity. For a number of reasons, it’s unlikely he’ll get the final. They include the fact that Jerome Garces, a Frenchman, refereed the 2019 showpiece. The real threat is that his own country might be participating, but also a feeling that he has the tendency to go ‘off-piste’ a little bit with decisions.
Some would argue he is a pioneer, others would argue he’s unpredictable, and that’s a risk that World Rugby are unlikely to take.
Nevertheless, Raynal is loved by all in rugby off the pitch – a person of great humour and laconic wit – and is a great insurance policy to have, given he’s officiated in over 50 World Rugby Tests.
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