NZLvBIL Third Test – Inside That Referee Decision. Penalty Or Not?

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New Zealand v British & Irish Lions
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 08: Romain Poite the referee, talks to All Black captain, Kieran Read after he reverses a decision when he awarded a penalty to the All Blacks with only two minutes to go during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on July 8, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It might be the most controversial decision rugby has seen for some time. Was Romain Poite correct to penalize the Lions in the dying moments of the Third Test in Auckland, or did sanity prevail? Much has, and will be said about it so we look inside that referee decision…and the outcry over TMO/Assistant Referee interaction.

Last Word on Rugby’s resident referee Scott MacLean looks at that decision in detail.

The Kick Restart

Let’s go back to the restart itself. Kieran Read is clearly in front at the kick, but such things are seldom dealt with by referees at the very top level.

Read reaches the kick – bypassing two strategically placed Lions defenders – which is played at by Lions fullback Liam Williams, under pressure from the All Blacks captain. The contact in the air see’s Williams pushed forward, so the players make contact in the air.

The deflected ball is caught by a retreating Ken Owens, who upon realizing he might be offside drops the ball. Referee Poite see’s this, and immediately blows for a penalty.

Those are the facts.

Firstly, let’s look at the referee decision itself.

Under the definitions of Law 11 – Offside; in general play a player is offside if the player is in front of a team-mate who is carrying the ball, or in front of a team-mate who last played the ball.

However because rugby is a dynamic game, this isn’t an absolute. Players in an offside position are liable to penalty only if they then take part in the game. Those are spelled out in Law 11.1, or play the ball or obstruct an opponent (Law 11.2).

To get back on-side, Owens needed to get behind the point of the field where Williams last played the ball, and in most spectators view, he did not before he caught the ball. Therefore, he was offside, and having played the ball is liable to be penalized.

Incidentally plenty of people, including myself, having opined that Law 11.7 comes into play here. On review of the footage, the ball doesn’t go forward from Williams so it’s a moot point.

Final analysis: Was Poite within his rights to penalise Owens? Yes.

Romain Poite the referee, awards a penalty to the All Blacks with only two minutes to go during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on July 8, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The Television Match Official Input

With controversy erupting around him, Poite pauses and decides to consult with the TMO. Given the limitations of the protocol, Poite has the presence of mind to use the only thing in the sequence he can to go upstairs for: the aerial challenge by Read.

Notably though, TMO George Ayoub doesn’t repeat back the question, adding to the confusion of those watching on television. The pair confirm the challenge was fair, and when asked about whether ‘Red 16’ (Owens) is offside, Ayoub agrees with Poite’s assessment.

Whats unclear is ‘whether the offside issue could be discussed’ as part of the TMO protocol.

Jerome Garces’ Involvement Adds to Confusion

On his way back to the mark, to speak with captains Read and Sam Warburton, Poite’s assistant referee Jerome Garces – who is on the camera side of the field – becomes involved. Something is clear when Poite is heard to say “Oui Jerome”.

We don’t know what happened in the one-sided conversation. The microphone is only audible from the on-field referee, but it seems that Garces’ input was convincing enough, given that Poite changes his mind on his decision. Confusingly, he orders a scrum for Owens being accidentally offside.

How would he have come to that decision. Accidental offside is dealt with under Law 11.6, with section (a) applying here;

When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside.

If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

Split-second calls by the match officials are now under increased scrutiny. So when one referee looks to make a judgement, only to be influenced by another, all rugby followers should be interested, and ask questions.

Was Garces entitled to offer advice or an opinion to Poite? Absolutely.

The Final Test Had Many Crucial Moments…and That Referee Decision

So one action, and two very different possible outcomes. Let’s say ‘if Owens never caught the ball and it simply bounced off his chest’ it is clearly accidental offside in my view. That said, I don’t believe he could have avoided being hit by the ball.

However because he did catch it – even if just an instinctive action – then he has triggered the relevant sections of Law 11.2, and most believe he should have been penalized. The referee decision needed to considered if it was intentional or not.

We may never know what Garces said, or why Poite changed his mind; or even why he didn’t play advantage at the outset. Anton Lienert-Brown might not have scored, but the All Blacks would have been ‘hot on attack’ near the Lions line if he hadn’t blown it up.

But the result is in the history books and besides, if the All Blacks had taken the chances that they created the last few minutes would have been immaterial.

“Main photo credit”

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