We are beyond the half-way mark of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, and not many would have predicted that Wales would have won the Triple Crown and on course for a final weekend showdown with France for the championship.
This weekend has been overshadowed by refereeing debates. Both matches had at least one controversial incident. In Rome, Ireland were denied a clear try, and in Cardiff, England felt they were on the wrong end of at least two crucial decisions in the first half. I will come onto them later, but there was one decision in the Italy-Rome game that I felt was just as contentious and more frustrating considering the new World Rugby directive to improve safety of players.
It was in the 15th minute, and Marco Riccioni, the Italian prop, was hit in the back by Ireland lock, James Ryan. This was a shoulder charge, with no attempt to wrap his arms around the body of the Italian player. A penalty was awarded, but not for the offense I’ve highlighted, and the collision led to treatment being required by Riccioni. My issue is that we have seen two red cards for Peter O’Mahony and Zander Ferguson in the first two rounds of the championship, and by the letter of the law and the directive given to referee by World Rugby, they deserved them. While the red cards were due to the point of contact (head or neck) and the fact that the players were not wrapping their arms and coming in from distance to the ruck. World rugby correctly are wanting to protect the players already involved in the ruck, for their new directive to be successful in promoting player safety, they must penalise with yellow cards, any contact that is made while not wrapping the arms. If any player enters a tackle situation, and does not wrap the arm of the shoulder that makes contact with a player, it should be a penalty (and yellow card), no matter where the contact is made. Whether it is a red is then determined by the point of contact (neck, shoulder (and potentially back)). This would be the best way to eradicate the practise. As soon as you get several players getting a yellow card and a 10 minute break, the players would get the message. It may seem draconian, but if World Rugby want to protect players this is what is required. A contact of a shoulder in the back (as was the case in Rome), is almost as bad as a neck / head contact, especially for a prop.
To the refereeing decision that have been discussed at length, Ireland will feel very hard done by, as there was no reason not to award the try to Iain Henderson. He clearly grounded the ball legally, and I am not sure what the TMO saw that the rest of the viewers didn’t to not award the try. At least this decision did not have a bearing on the end result, as Ireland got a try two minutes later through Garry Ringrose. Normally, these decision go against Scotland, and they end up being crucial to the outcome, but I digress.
Meanwhile in Cardiff, another French referee, Pascal Gauzere, was at the centre of a first half full of interesting calls. The first decision was in the build-up to the first Welsh try.
Personally, I feel it was an error rather than a mistake by the referee. I feel that he misread the situation, and under some pressure from Wales number 10, Dan Biggar, he made the error that caused the furore. Having asked England captain, Owen Farrell, to speak to his team about the number of penalties that they were conceding, he restarted the game with not all the English players having not returned to their given positions. This allowed Biggar to kick a pin-point ball for Josh Adams to catch and dot down for the try. While the referee followed the letter of the law, and restarted the game, his error was that he had not allowed the defensive team to take up its. Biggar, had asked frequently to let him know when the ball would be live, as it was a set play. Gauzere, should have checked that the players had returned to position. He had a quick look and saw the players returning, but they had not returned. It was a poor call by the referee, but was within the law, and congratulations to Wales for their forethought.
As for the second try, I can fully understand the reasoning behind the award, and I have seen them penalised and also not given. My opinion was that, for what is it worth, is that it was a knock on. The reasoning for this was after the player lost control, and even though it hit the leg, it hit the ground in front of where the ball control was lost, so it was a knock on. While the first decision was poor decision making by the referee, I feel he got the second decision wrong.
The way the game panned out in the second half, I don’t think these decisions influenced the results as England only trailed by three points at half time and could have been ahead. What cost England was the lack of discipline at the breakdown. I thought that they got the short end of the referee’s wedge, with several of the calls against them could potentially have gone against Wales. It seems to have been an issue with Eddie Jone’s teams since he took over after the World Cup in 2015. When England are at their best, this indiscipline doesn’t normally cost them, but when they are not, it works against them. Most of the tier one nations are getting closer and indiscipline is often the fine line between history and defeat. Just look at the other two matches in Wales triple crown. Both won by less than a score, and both against a team who’s indiscipline led to them being reduced to 14 men. Fine lines indeed, but there is still 30 months before RWC2023, so all is not lost.