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Owen Doyle: It is not possible to blame Wayne Barnes for Ireland’s defeat

English referee got most of the big calls right though Richie Mo’unga’s collision with Bundee Aki needed further scrutiny

Oh ye sporting gods, how cruel you are! They were obviously having a grim chuckle while Andy Farrell and his men were busy, meticulously planning for a victory over New Zealand.

How else to explain Johnny Sexton missing a sitter, Caelan Doris dropping a dolly of a catch, and Jordie Barrett miraculously preventing Ronan Kelleher from touching down over the line? On another day, these would all have gone Ireland’s way. In an utterly edge-of-the-seat thriller, where Ireland underperformed and New Zealand overperformed, these misses proved costly.

Having given us a wonderful run for our money over the last few years, the Rugby World Cup semi-final was just not to be for this terrific team.

But with the bitter sting of defeat, we should not be pointing the finger of blame at the referee - it’s not possible to do so. Wayne Barnes had a good match, and is clearly the best in the tournament, despite regular bouts of severe verbosity which happily did not surface on Saturday. It looks like only England, by reaching the final, can prevent him getting that treasured appointment and he deserves it.


He rightly produced two yellows against New Zealand. One was for Codie Taylor for collapsing a maul, the offence also seeing a penalty try awarded. The other went to Aaron Smith, whose tiny deliberate knock-on was enough to skew the ball away from Jamison Gibson-Park with a line-break on the cards.

In my opinion, there should also have been a third sin-bin, this time for foul play, when Richie Mo’unga shouldered into Bundee Aki’s face. Barnes and TMO Tom Foley took just one a cursory look, one replay, before the referee announced that it was a penalty only. Sexton was right to be perplexed about it.

While we all want to see 15 players against 15, it’s not up to the officials that it remains that way. The overriding, fundamental responsibility for any referee is both simple and essential – get the sanction right.

The hosts have also gone out. France were eventually overpowered by the might of South Africa and their bench. It was a match of effervescent brilliance and perhaps at last the legendary 1973 Barbarians v New Zealand classic has been equalled, or bettered? It would have been a fitting final. But the timing of the draw for the pools preordained that two of the top four teams in the world would go out at the quarter-final stage, even before a ball was kicked.

New Zealander Ben O’Keefe was the man in the middle, and he upped his communication for this one. Still courteous, he was much firmer, and, in general, the players paid attention. However, France are not happy with his performance with Antoine Dupont – treading on thin ice – wondering if the refereeing was up to the standard of the match. They will undoubtedly follow procedure and send their list of queries, accompanied by video footage, to World Rugby referee manager Joël Jutge.

Eben Etzebeth scored a vital try for South Africa in the final quarter, the only question about its validity is should he have been on the pitch at all. Earlier he had visited the sin bin, for a head-on-head clash with the 147kg Uini Atonio. The unknown foul play review officer, deciding on a reprieve, got this one right.

The South African lock had also infuriated the French crowd with what they saw as a deliberate knock-on. Here, the play-on decision of the referee was correct, the ball had been cleverly clawed backwards, just, by Etzebeth’s outstretched hand. O’Keefe did give South Africa a contentious penalty, converted by Handre Pollard with an enormous kick, when it seemed to me that Kwagga Smith had infringed in the first instance. That will be among the French questions, but no referee will ever get the breakdown 100 per cent correct, it’s a really tricky area to deliver consistently.

This one-point match saw a rarer than hen’s’ teeth event – a conversion attempt being charged down. The accurate Thomas Ramos might well have nailed a vital two points if he’d been a tad quicker with his run up, the speeding Cheslin Kolbe catching him out. France will want confirmation that Kolbe did not start his run too early. The replays look like he well might have, and Ramos was so surprised he never thought to ask O’Keefe to check. Had he done so, the fullback would probably have been given a re-take, and this time no charge would have been allowed.

There’s time now to catch our breath and reflect on the sheer excellence of the rugby we saw over the weekend, not forgetting the Flying Fijians. The glitch over the weekend was Wales v Argentina, a poor match despite excitement towards the end. We hear much from World Rugby about reimagining the game, and we will probably see some law experiments announced in due course.

But if the current laws provide for the quality of play we’ve seen, I not sure there’s much wrong with them. It’s all about attitude and the dynamic rugby we are seeing is underpinned by a growing number of coaches who want their teams to play that way. So, please World Rugby, not too much reimagining, it could well be counterproductive.