Referee Ben O’Keeffe failed to establish ground rules in Ireland’s win over Australia

If World Rugby is serious about reducing brain trauma, potentially dangerous tackle technique must be punished rigorously

Two hours and six minutes after the appointed kick-off time Ben O’Keeffe’s final whistle brought a merciful end to a Test match at the Aviva Stadium that was held hostage by the breakdown interpretation and intermittent prevarication in matters that could have been resolved in double quick fashion.

As a spectacle it was a tough watch, the outcome defining the post-match mood music for players, coaches and supporters of the respective teams after Ireland’s 13-10 victory over Australia. A staccato affair, the game was punctuated by 24 penalties, sundry free kicks and interminable dialogue between O’Keeffe and his officiating team, and O’Keeffe and half a dozen players.

The New Zealander might just as well have set up a confessional booth, the queue for which would have snaked from the middle of the pitch to the touchline; “excuse me sir for they have sinned, it’s been 90 seconds since my last entreaty. What will you give them for penance?” Whistleblowers were 10-a-penny, but the man who physically had one, needed to be more judicious in its use.

In theory all the dialogue should have been funnelled through the respective captains, but other players decided to personally plea bargain gripes, some with justifiable cause in content if not context. A stronger referee wouldn’t entertain general entreaties per se, but O’Keeffe preferred to fob them off with vague promises of more stringent scrutiny.


As the opening throes of the contest unfolded, it was obvious that the battle at the breakdown was going to be ferociously contested. Australia made that abundantly clear in targeting an area that, if successful, could stymie Ireland’s attack; and they managed it superbly, if not always legally.

O’Keeffe needed to be firm, unflinching, and consistent from the get-go to establish the ground rules in this facet of the game for both teams; basically, to ping transgressors off the park until everyone understood what was acceptable. He didn’t and so players, as is their want, not so much pushed but ignored boundaries.

In no particular order, players came in from the side to clear out, went off feet, didn’t roll away from the tackle area, and four times Australia were penalised for neck rolls, the last of which cost them a yellow card for replacement hooker Folau Fainga’a and forced them to go to 13 players early in the second half. It placed a heavy tariff on the game as a spectacle.

The players didn’t help the referee one iota, Ireland often technically inaccurate in their breakdown work, but he missed a little more than he should and not just at ruck time – a couple of forearm/elbow led carries should have been pulled up and inspired Josh van der Flier to have a word – and that led to frustration from both those in the green and the gold jerseys.

In the first half, and understandably exasperated he called the respective captains, Peter O’Mahony and James Slipper, in for a chat, the gist of which can be summed up when he concluded: “I want to be able to sort this game out as well, but we can’t do it if we have constant foul play.”

That should have been the line in the sand. It wasn’t. Ireland continued to infringe at the breakdown while O’Keeffe permitted a great deal of faffing around, setting scrums, getting players on and off – the exception the unfortunate injury to Taniela Tupou – and lengthy explanations that were, well, unnecessary. It added a layer of tedium.

On 47 minutes Ireland hooker Dan Sheehan carried into Rob Valetini and there was a head clash. The TMO Stuart Terheege alerted O’Keeffe. After some preliminary dialogue the referee said: “So Stu I just need you to confirm, do we have any head contact?

Terheege: “We do have head contact.”

O’Keeffe: “For me we do have head contact, there is foul play, the player (tackler) is upright; the danger is very low for me. There is no mitigation, so I am just at a penalty.”

The dialogue continues as O’Keeffe reiterates his decision and asks Terheege whether he agrees to which the latter affirms that he does. Can’t wait for the day that a TMO says: “No, you’re talking bunkum.”

So, there was head contact, there was foul play, the tackler was bolt upright and there was no mitigation, while on the credit side O’Keeffe adjudicated “very low danger”. There’s a temptation to point to a southern hemisphere interpretation of the incident but sadly that shouldn’t enter the equation.

If World Rugby is serious about reducing brain trauma, potentially dangerous tackle technique must be punished rigorously. If a player stands upright in a tackle and there is head-on-head contact, irrespective of force or intent, the only remaining discussion is the colour of the card. Yellow would have sufficed in this case.

It feels like a broken record in advocating once again that player behaviour must change because the alternative is unacceptable in terms of the risk of legacy brain issues.

Rugby also needs to look at the fact that matches are now beginning to leave the two-hour mark to complete a game in the rear-view mirror. Going forward it won’t win new hearts and minds.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer