Analysis: Was the refereeing that bad?

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The vast majority of media coverage following Saturday’s home defeat to Leinster has focused around the refereeing of Dudley Phillips, along with his team of Ian Davies and Frank Murphy as touch judges, and Neil Paterson as TMO.

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs as the game itself was a fierce encounter between two of the strongest sides in the league this season. There were moments of the highest class and I don’t think anyone could have been really confident on what the final score would be until the clock turned 80 and Jonny Sexton kicked the ball out.

Of course the majority of the criticism towards the officials have come from Cardiff fans and there has been a defence of the Irish referee from other quarters, but I maintain the view that there was a number of seriously poor decisions made. So let’s start with a look at what I feel went wrong before getting into the deeper issues…

The Decisions

The first half didn’t cough up anything too major in terms of refereeing, although inside two minutes there was a pretty straightforward infringement that was left unpunished.

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Check the clock and we see how early into the game we are, with Leinster setting up a lineout just inside their own half, nothing untoward thus far until…..

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Look at the body position of the lifters and where Sam Warburton has to end up just to compete at the set piece. Is that a straight throw-in? Dudley Phillips and touch judge Frank Murphy said no, I think differently.

Then a bit later in the first period Lloyd Williams sticks up a box kick, Tom James chases and nails Fergus McFadden. The counter-ruck comes in until the set up looks like this…

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The ruck has moved well beyond the initial tackle to the extent that it is over. The ball is almost five yards from the point the tackle was made, George Earle is the only player on the floor due to counter rucking too far and Kris Dacey is battling for the free ball with a Leinster player (both players circled). Dacey wins the contest and scoops the ball back onto the Cardiff side but is, unfairly for me, penalised for using his hands in a ‘ruck’.

The final incorrect call from the first half is a few minutes later as Leinster hold possession in midfield. Dacey and, mainly Fa’ao Filise, put in a tackle only for the King of Tonga to be penalised for not rolling away…

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Filise has landed at the side of the tackle anyway. He is in no way preventing the ball being placed, or the scrum-half playing it. There’s no appeal and actually the nine gets the ball away so quickly that the next phase is underway before Phillips even holds his arm out for the advantage. Don’t go looking for penalties is the best advice to offer.

The issues at the breakdown continued into the second half when Cory Allen was penalised for going off his feet at an attacking ruck here….

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Before Jamie Heaslip somehow wasn’t for this in defence….

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If anyone is seriously telling me that Heaslip is even close to supporting his own weight while making an attempt to play the ball then they are either blind or have seriously tinted glasses on. What makes the decision not to penalise the number eight worse is that Cardiff actually concede a scrum for an apparent knock-on….

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….when there is no doubt at all it is Heaslip who forces the ball out of the side of the ruck. A disastrous decision mainly from touch judge Murphy again who is still just at the bottom left of the picture looking straight in at the incident.

There were two main periods of play that mainly catch the attention though as particularly crucial in the game, and both were shaped by refereeing decisions. Firstly, not 10 minutes after half-time, and Leinster had made a break to put us on the back foot. The secondary attacker went in isolated though to set up a ruck looking like this…

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Although it’s not a great picture, the lines show the body position of Rey Lee-Lo. He’s on both feet, two hands competing for the ball and he supports his own body weight. Roll the tape on two seconds and Lee-Lo has actually stripped the ball on his own five-metre line and Cardiff are safe from another attack.

Phillips had other ideas though as he penalised the Samoan for being off his feet and give Leinster a penalty in an excellent position. Scrum half Gibson-Park took the tap penalty and went to the blindside but his winger was held up by Blaine Scully. Did Dudley like that? Of course not, and the penalty was given for Cardiff not being back 10 metres.

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Now bearing in mind that Scully (circled) is the tackling player, and he is clearly on the try line, you have to question that decision. Anyway, Leinster went to the corner from this penalty and were soon driving for the line. Rhys Ruddock picked and went but fell agonisingly short, before the next second he was over the line and Phillips was signalling for the try.

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At this point you can see that Ruddock is down. The ball is on the floor and Gareth Anscombe is over him. Ruddock’s head is not even over the line from the initial grounding, he is completely short of the in-goal area. If he reaches for the line at this point then that is permitted as he is allowed one placement of the ball.

However, what actually happens is, with the assistance of Mike Ross, he moves his entire body forward a yard until he is on the line and then makes a placement of the ball to score the ‘try’. When, as in the picture, he and the ball are on the floor then the tackle is completed and the subsequent movement constitutes a double movement.

With the scores level after the ‘try’ it led into the second main period where Dudley influenced the game. There was a crucial last ten minutes, but Cardiff were put on the back foot. Josh Navidi’s yellow card was not a point of great debate post-match. As soon as it happened I said it was a poor piece of play from the flanker who lazily retreated in defence, and it’s difficult to defend him.

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Leinster scrum-half Gibson-Park is very clever by hitting Navidi as he returns to the line. You can see the direction of the pass isn’t particularly going anywhere, and even if it is it’s going to Sexton on a crash ball line towards Josh Turnbull, not an option I think he would go for. You can’t particularly blame the opposition man for catch Navidi out though.

One gripe I’d have with this decision is that Phillips yellow cards Navidi with the explanation that ‘I’ve informed the team about the amount of penalties in this area of the pitch’. As we’ve seen above though, a number of these penalties were incorrect.

Anyway, that isn’t the biggest issue I have with this section of play . That is what happened a few minutes later after Sexton had kicked Leinster ahead from that penalty. Cardiff went up the other end and moved the ball wide to Tom James and Dan Fish on the blindside. The tackle came in with us having possession on Leinster’s 22.

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What happened next was Sexton coming around the side of the ruck and kicking the ball out of play. Now you may say that the ball looks out there, but at no point does Phillips call ‘ball is out’ and Sexton’s hands up pose suggests he knows he’s infringing on the laws.

The referee does penalise the Irish fly-half on this occasion, but having binned Navidi in a similar area of the field for something equally cynical not three minutes earlier, the main question is ‘why no card?’. I guess only Phillips can answer that.

The Verdict

Overall I would describe Dudley Phillips’ performance in Saturday’s game as poor. I feel that from the examples above that we have seen he got enough decisions wrong to be classed as having a really bad game, and most importantly at least two of the decisions had a big impact on the outcome of the game.

What I would shy away from is suggesting that Phillips was purposely biased towards Leinster. It has since come out that he is a Dublin born official who is in fact part of the Leinster branch of referees. Also that it was the first time in 9 years on the Pro12 refereeing panel that he was appointed to a game involving Leinster.

This does not mean that he was biased on Saturday though, it means he is being put in a very difficult position by those running the league. When he has what is seen as a bad game then involving Leinster, as he did on Saturday, it opens him up to accusations of bias.

The whole argument comes back to why there aren’t neutral referees in the Pro12. For this, interestingly, you have to look at Scotland and Italy. Both bring just one referee to the panel, meaning that whenever there are games between Irish and Welsh teams, if the Scot or Italian aren’t up to the job or are unavailable, we’re looking at non-neutral referees.

Utilising referees from the English Premiership or Top14 isn’t an option as why would the respective unions involved send their employees to another league when they are required for their own? Leaving the only option being funding, or pressuring the SRU and FIR into funding, better refereeing standards in their countries.

Unfortunately it’s not going to be a quick resolution into the problem of neutral refereeing in the league and it will be be a big issue for the credibility of the Pro12 while the issue is ongoing. All we can hope for in the meantime is we never see a refereeing performance, such as that from Dudley Phillips on Saturday, ever again.

7 comments

  1. Referees will make mistakes. In real time with only a single angle on the game (which is different from the angle we get) there is no way officials can get it right 100% of the time. Particularly at the breakdown where so much is going on. In every single game you could identify numerous breakdown offences that were missed or incorrectly called both ways.

    I didn’t think Phillips was great, but I also don’t think he got the level of assistance required from his ARs or his TMO. Take for example Heaslip playing the ball on the ground. No way Phillips could have seen that from where he was, but the AR should have. Take Nick Williams launching himself shoulder first into Mike Ross’ face. Not sure if Phillips was in a position to see that, but the TMO should have and absolutely should have called that (still can’t believe there was not citing for that one). The TMOs attempt to judge the Leavy non-try was farcical. Leavy was clearly in touch and yet he tried to award the try, only to be asked to look again by Phillips where-by the TMO reversed his decision. But then Jenkins made sure to obstruct McGrath for Anscombes try and that happened right beside Phillips. As for the yellow it certainly looks to me like Navidi is obstructing the line from the 9 to the 10 in an attacking position in the 22. Gibson-Park knew what he was doing, but I’d wager so did Navidi.

    A referee can only do so much. There are a team of 4 of them out there. And we have to expect mistakes from them. They need to get the big calls right more often than not. And while that didn’t always happen on Saturday a lot of those issues weren’t the fault of Phillips himself.

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    1. I agree with a lot of what you said there, and I’ve made sure to point out when particularly AR Murphy might have stepped in to assist Phillips, but it’s also important to remember that the referee has the final word on all decisions, and that we don’t know what instructions the referee has given to his ARs pre-match. From the viewing of Saturday night’s game I’d suggest not much leeway was given for ARs to get involved, and he seemed to lose a lot of confidence in the TMO after the Leavy incident. He shouldn’t have had much confidence anyway as TMO Neil Paterson was a dreadful referee in his own right.

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  2. Agreed on much of what you said about the breakdown, but the ball is clearly out of the ruck when Sexton plays it.

    The discrepancy in the ‘supporting your own weight while playing the ball’ arguments could relatively easily be resolved by allowing players to jackal properly with straight legs with one foot over the ball – like the tackler should be doing. ANY dive or loss of control of your upper bodyweight that wasn’t directly from the tackle needs to be penalised IMHO. The Irish and Kiwis have been exploiting this weakness in the Laws for years.

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    1. I’d agree the all appears out of that specific ruck, but until the referee calls the ball out then, of course, it isn’t.

      In terms of general jackaling, as far as I’m aware the referees are to penalise people stepping over the ruck this season, and diving over the ruck has always been illegal. However coming over the ball while on two feet to compete directly on the ball is legal and always will be, unless you’re Dudley Phillips.

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