In the third quarter of the Wasps versus Exeter Premiership game last weekend there was one of those rapidly escalating moments where the refereeing team had to get all over it like a rash to restore order.
The incendiary piece in this cocktail was the involvement of extras: replacements, waterboys, physios/medics. Rugby has a raft of them circling the action throughout the game and often occupying the same space as the players. It’s a wonder this doesn’t kick off more often, especially when a try scored coincides with the presence of replacements warming up in the same in-goal area. Of course they rush in to ‘celebrate’ — one of the great imperatives of the modern game, to act like you’ve won the lotto every time something goes your way.
On this occasion one of the extras kicked the ball away, preventing Exeter from doing something quickly with the penalty advantage they were enjoying from referee Wayne Barnes.
“Oh, hello?” said commentator Matt Dawson, as the afters unfolded. Barnes quickly went into full-on mode: part cop, part advocate. With the help of TMO Tom Foley order was quickly restored. Not only was justice seen to be done it was heard as well. A little drama within the bigger story if you like. It’s not always this clear and obvious.
Later that night, in a different competition in a different city, Munster were embroiled with Connacht in a typically tense interpro. Having failed to get out of the traps against the Dragons the previous weekend, this time Connacht were setting the pace, leading 6-0 as the first half came to a close. Before they could get to the changing room however they fell behind to a converted try from Chris Cloete. If his grounding of the ball was worth a second look then his starting point, and that of teammate Tadhg Beirne, were items of greater interest.
The sequence of events that unfolded have immediate implications for Connacht, who lost the game, and the URC in whose competition it occurred. Referee Chris Busby and TMO Brian MacNeice are also in the frame.
As you would expect when a borderline decision is key, one coach was upset. He hasn’t perked up much since then. Andy Friend was under the pump from the start of this campaign because of the shift in qualifying criteria from the URC to the Heineken Champions Cup, which will make it tougher for his team. It puts an even greater premium on interpros. Wedge in the timing — a few days before Andy Farrell names his squad for the autumn series — and you’re not far off Test match intensity. So close shaves leave a scar.
Post-match Friend loaded two barrels: the first aimed at the decision itself; the second over the speed with which it was made. The hair-splitting exercise required to examine the onside/offside position of Beirne, whose nifty sidefoot of the ball gave Cloete a target to chase, is best dealt with it in detail at the referees’ Christmas party. Let’s distill it to this: MacNeice declared that while Beirne looked offside it was shaped by his front foot which was actually in the air when the ball was kicked, and therefore not a problem. You could pursue this to Riverdance levels but seemingly it’s a thing.
It’s likely that many present expected a public hearing on the issue however, and not a ‘drive on, nothing to see here folks’ response. For example Busby didn’t give the confident blast you get from a referee who thinks a try is okay, rather there were five short blasts, which suggested more was to follow. He wanted the try ‘cleared off’ as it’s described in the trade. As match commentator Ryle Nugent put it: “There’ll be all sorts of reviews on this.”
Or maybe not. What unfolded was a short enough conversation between ref and TMO — where the public were not privy to both sides — noticeably at odds with the way an incident had been handled only minutes earlier.
In that one Connacht centre Sammy Arnold brought a swinging arm to Mike Haley’s party and added a bit of nut for good measure. How much was intentional is irrelevant to us just now, unlike the process followed to yellow card him. When the incident occurred Busby blew his whistle, stepped back and dialled up MacNeice for assistance.
A pregnant pause followed. If this had been a radio show it would have been classed as ‘dead air.’ It was unmissable. Busby jogged over to the big screen; MacNeice told him the images were coming; then silence. It was like the TMO was prepared to wait until midnight to let the ref make the first move. Awkward as this sounded, that’s the protocol, designed to prevent TMOs railroading refs into a siding. If you were under all sorts of pressures, as uniquely referees are in rugby, the prospect of a TMO making your mind up for you, and absolving you of subsequent grief, had its attractions.
The images were reviewed. MacNeice pointedly asked Busby what his decision was and the ref replied that Arnold was bin-bound. Connacht can’t have had any complaints with the process or the outcome. When Busby was reviewing this last week he might have concluded that a stronger approach from him would have been better. Even so, it worked out fairly.
Before long the pair of them were in the frame again, this time for Cloete’s touchdown. The context had changed though, with the game on the brink of half-time, a staging post Connacht were desperate to get to with their noses in front. Bear in mind they had Arnold in the bin. Up in the Connacht coaches’ box Friend would have seen the way the try unfolded, and told himself it was about to be chalked off.
The sequence was as follows: Cloete touches down, Busby whistles and everyone waits.
“Brian, onfield ok?” asks Busby.
“Just let me know Brian.”
Time Gap (in which MacNeice has another two views of the sequence, the second at a slower pace).
“Super. Thanks Brian.”
“Just keep an eye on the clock here lads, yeah? I’ll check the restart.”
Joey Carbery takes the conversion. The game restarts and Munster get it safely off the field and head to the changing room.
‘Ropable’ is a description popular in the Antipodes to describe deep anger. Friend was ropable. Not so highly strung however that he approached the officials at the interval, but when the game was over he had a word with MacNeice, as did a very agitated Bundee Aki. The gist of the conversation seems to have been that MacNeice stood over his decision but would happily change that position if reviews proved him wrong.
Quickly the TMO was buried under a social and mainstream media pile-on. How on earth could the try have stood when there was a gaggle of men in red offside, most notably Tadhg Beirne? The replays narrowed that down to Beirne being the prime suspect, and subsequent micro-examination took us into Riverdance territory with the offending foot in the air rather than on the ground. This allowed for two lines to be drawn in the sand: one, from officialdom, that the call was correct so what are you bleating about? And two, MacNeice wanted some climbdown from those piling-on. The tide washes away lines in the sand.
Dudley Phillips, the IRFU’s head of referees, and John Lacey, their high performance referee coach, are not in the business of undermining their men. In the second instance MacNeice felt compromised by having made a tight call, which — it is understood — subsequently was endorsed privately by World Rugby’s Joel Jutge, and Joe Schmidt, but now has to crack on with TMO gigs at Wales versus New Zealand and England versus South Africa as if nothing has happened.
The way he sees it, TMOs are under pressure to make decisions quickly rather than pore over every other incident, contributing to the ‘paralysis by analysis’ syndrome afflicting the game.
Moreover there was no clear and obvious offside, so he did the right thing and stuck with Busby’s immediate impression.
To fold your tent at that point and move on is to ignore the context to a degree that is, frankly, worrying. In a game loaded with pressure, where the underdog was in the lead and had been reduced to 14 men in an incident dealt with in public, a bigger incident was then wrapped up in semi-private and popped into a box marked ‘done and dusted’.
Could anyone in the URC have complained if MacNeice had told Busby to hold his horses, this would take as many angles as could be mustered? Could Connacht have complained if that process had been rolled out and still they came out the wrong side of it? The answer to the first is no; to the second it’s maybe, but the complaint would have been short-lived.
Instead Andy Friend was moving towards midweek before he was given any clarity on what had unfolded. This could only have happened in a competition where there is no referees’ manager.
We understand interviews took place last week to fill the gap left by Greg Garner a few months ago. So it might be South African Tappe Henning, it might be Kiwi Bryce Lawrence, it might be Scotland’s Paul Larter getting that gig.
They should start with a workable, realistic system reflecting a real world where coaches and referees co-exist. If the optics of that system look skewed then it doesn’t matter whether your foot is in the air or in your mouth, it is de facto skewed. The new man will have his hands full.