CAPE TOWN – Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens are comfortably the best referees in world rugby. Yet both couldn’t make the most obvious and decisive calls when it came to thuggery over the weekend.
World Rugby is in serious trouble when it comes to the decision-making of its referees. They have all failed at this World Cup. Too much has been left to interpretation and too much of the game’s laws have not been applied.
It makes for a mess and it makes for a very nervous time come the playoffs.
Let’s start with Barnes and the Springboks versus Italy match on Friday.
Barnes consulted the Television Match Official to check on a double spear tackle on Bok No 8 Duane Vermeulen.
The Italians had just been awarded a penalty and were five metres from the Bok tryline.
Their two props, in the most insane moment of this World Cup, picked up Vermeulen, turned him, and with malice and intent, speared his head into the ground.
There didn’t need to be more than one video replay, yet after a series of replays, Barnes only gave a red card to one of the Italians. Why?
It was so clear that both were culpable and both should have been sent off.
Barnes only focused on one player and subsequently the second player was cited after the match.
The illegal double spear tackle on Vermeulen was the crassest act of thuggery at this World Cup and yet the official ranked the best in the world couldn’t see what the rest of the world saw.
That has to concern everyone within the leadership of World Rugby.
This World Cup has been sensational for what hosts Japan have delivered, by way of their people. But it has been a disaster when it comes to officiating.
Owens, one of my favourite referees, was awful in the England versus Argentina match.
This was a match that was always going to be brutal and it needed the referee to appreciate that this was a match that had to be ruled with an iron fist and not with banter, humour and the odd YouTube highlights clip.
Owens failed on all accounts and none was bigger than his initial on-field verdict that he had seen nothing wrong with Tomas Lavanini’s shoulder to the head of England captain Owen Farrell.
“No foul play for me, no foul play,” was Owens’ on-field call. It took the insistence of the TMO for Owens to refer the incident.
On referral he delivered this speech: “The law is quite clear that we look after the safety of the players. You were always high, you were leading with the shoulder and you made contact with the head of No 10, who has not come down enough from the height for me to give you anything but a red card. It is a shoulder to the head with a high degree of danger. That is my decision.”
But it never was Owens’ decision because initially he said play on and even after delivering his sermon, he didn’t even see the need to send Farrell for a head injury assessment.