It was north versus south in the RWC quarterfinals but it wasn’t the expected match ups that made the headlines, it was the rugby laws that saw referee Craig Joubert v Scotland. In this Royall Lyme article we look at how the laws of the game have shaped the championship.
— ESPN Scrum (@espnscrum) October 19, 2015
The Rugby World Cup has provided a great showcase for the sport with close contests throughout the pool stages and the quarterfinals also delivered their share of close encounters. Going into the Australia v Scotland match, Wales, France and Ireland had all fallen to their southern hemisphere opposition so it was left to Scotland to uphold the honour of the north. The team had not won any games in the Six Nations in the spring and with a resurgent Wallabies side winning the Rugby Championships and continuing that form in the RWC, expectations were not high that Scotland could turn the tide of southern dominance.
Scotland hadn’t read the script and a gripping 80 minutes followed with the two teams battling for supremacy, exchanging scores throughout. Too close to call the game entered the final minutes with Scotland ahead by 2 points but deep in their own half. They had a lineout and just had to retain possession to run down those few last moments on the clock. They went for the throw to the tail of the lineout, Scotland’s Dave Denton got a hand to the ball but couldn’t take it cleanly and it fell to the players below.
In the flurry of bodies and hands, the referee Craig Joubert saw what he believed was a knock on and blew for a penalty to Australia. The Wallabies 10 Bernard Foley stepped forward and took the kick which gave Australia the lead, and the game.
Joubert’s interpretation of the Laws was correct if the Scottish player John Hardie had been last to touch the ball before his team mate Jon Welsh caught it in an offside position. However in subsequent viewings of the incident the Australian scrum half Nick Phipps looked to have made contact with the ball, flicking it back towards his own players and the call should have been a scrum to Australia.
Players, fans and former pros alike have questioned why with so much at stake Joubert did not go the Television Match Official (TMO) to check? Currently the TMO can only be used to check for foul play, to check if a try has been scored, or if there has been anything in the phases leading up to the try which could prevent it being awarded (e.g. forward pass). This incident didn’t qualify on any of these grounds and without the luxury of multi-angle slow motion, Joubert worked within the laws and based his decision on the view of the incident in real time. Others in the game, like Brian O’Driscoll have stated their gut reaction to the incident on first viewing had been a penalty, the same as Joubert’s.
All referee’s performances are reviewed post-match and World Rugby were prompted to make public their findings of the decision in light of the debate that followed the result.
Their statement read: “Following a full review of match officials’ performance, the World Rugby match official selection committee has clarified the decision made by referee Craig Joubert to award a penalty to Australia for offside in the 78th minute of the Rugby World Cup 2015 quarter-final between Australia and Scotland at Twickenham.
“The selection committee confirms that Joubert applied World Rugby Law 11.7 penalising Scotland’s Jon Welsh, who had played the ball following a knock-on by a team-mate, resulting in an offside.
“On review of all available angles, it is clear that after the knock-on, the ball was touched by Australia’s Nick Phipps and Law 11.3(c) states that a player can be put onside by an opponent who intentionally plays the ball.
“It is important to clarify that, under the protocols, the referee could not refer to the television match official in this case and therefore had to rely on what he saw in real time. In this case, Law 11.3(c) should have been applied, putting Welsh onside. The appropriate decision, therefore, should have been a scrum to Australia for the original knock-on.
“Overall, it is widely recognised that the standard of officiating at Rugby World Cup 2015 has been very high across 44 compelling and competitive matches to date.”
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11.3 Being put onside by opponents
In general play, there are three ways by which an offside player can be put onside by an action of the opposing team. These three ways do not apply to a player who is offside under the 10-Metre Law.
(a) Runs 5 metres with ball. When an opponent carrying the ball runs 5 metres, the offside player is put onside.
(b) Kicks or passes. When an opponent kicks or passes the ball, the offside player is put onside.
(c) Intentionally touches ball. When an opponent intentionally touches the ball but does not catch it, the offside player is put onside.
11.7 Offside after a knock-on
When a player knocks-on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage.
Sanction: Penalty kick
At this time there are no appeals for review of decisions on the field, no option for the TMO to be used beyond its current scope, or for a decision to be reversed post-match. Given the vehement reaction to this decision it could lead to changes in the law of the game. Refereeing in rugby has become a daunting task and with the ongoing development of the professional game, it is vital to get these calls right and not let them fall upon the referee’s interpretation of the law.
After the game, the Scotland back row David Denton said to the Telegraph Newspaper that “The bounce of the ball has changed our lives for the next four years.” It’s hard to argue with that, given that a place in the semi-finals was on the line.
On such small incidents do results turn. Onward for #AUS, homeward for #SCO.
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Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com