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Owen Doyle: I have a growing sense of unease around ‘pick and drive’ tries

Being static, in-field, as the ball carrier plunges for the line, won’t do the trick

I have to start with an admission, an apology really, to Leo Cullen and Jacques Nienaber. I wasn’t a believer.

All week long I had chatted with doubters. And there were plenty of them, I was not alone. There were many who were certain that Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle had a hex on Leinster. The fact that, on the day, it turned out so differently was astonishing.

Nothing the referee Karl Dickson did, or didn’t do, had any influence on the result. Nonetheless, he was very much centre stage. He was also in charge for Ireland’s Six Nations’ opener against France, which he let flow a lot more.

It’s not possible to say the same thing this time around. There were a total of 25 penalties, and he could easily have kept his whistle in his pocket for four or five of those, as he did in Marseille.


The trouble often comes when a referee is too quick to stick out his arm for advantage, meaning he has no choice but to come back for a penalty, even if, at that point, he wished he hadn’t cornered himself. Dickson, in this respect, can be the rugby equivalent of the fastest gun in the west.

He also played a most peculiar, overly generous and incorrect advantage to Leinster following a long clearance by James Lowe. Taken by the wind, the ball travelled nearly the length of the pitch, eventually going over La Rochelle’s dead ball line.

Tough luck, yes, but by any normal measure advantage was over. However, Dickson told us that it wasn’t and went all the way back to give Leinster a scrum. A poor call, and, hopefully, one that won’t be copied.

As is all too common, the referee never came to terms with the scrums. Choosing to reset politely, as the match entered its final minutes, spoke to an ineffectual approach. Sooner or later, referees will come down hard on illegal scrummaging, it’s the only way when players pay scant lip service to what is required.

Dickson deserves credit for ensuring that there was a contest for possession at the breakdown, and a penalty against Caelen Doris sent out an important message. The other matches on Saturday saw the referees giving license to the team in possession, who illegally protected the ball, almost at will. Clear sealing off was ignored, as were players on all fours, low to the ground, not supporting their own body weight.

I have a growing sense of unease around ‘pick and drive’ tries. They are notoriously difficult to decide and Dickson is not alone in getting himself poorly positioned. At one point he advised his TMO, and the rest of us, that he was not in a “credible” position make a call; quite so.

But that left the decision up to what the camera showed. With the trickery of the parallax effect, differing camera angles, and defenders’ hands under the ball (or not), you have to wonder about the accuracy of these calls.

Referees have to do a lot better to get themselves to a place where they can make an informed decision, a combination of positioning and anticipation is needed. Being static, in-field, as the ball carrier plunges for the line, won’t do the trick.

I have watched schools cup matches where referees, without the luxury of a TMO, do a far better job in this respect.

Events were marred by a sickening injury to the visitors’ scrumhalf, Tawera Kerr-Barlow. In a match where the overall physicality level was high, this was accidental, but the outcome was no less frightening. Watching the player being tended to, and eventually carried off, was as worrying as this game too often gets.

The weekend wrapped up in Toulouse with their quarter-final against Exeter. In his most important appointment to date, Ireland’s Chris Busby was subjected to the unsettling wrath of the home crowd. There are learning curves for referees, and then there are these type of learning curves. The first half was very much in the hard school of the latter. The pressure was palpable.

There were several early decisions against the home team which were correct, but these were coupled with several which did not please the crowd. The atmosphere was hot. Toulouse coach, the excellent Ugo Mola, no doubt told his team to go out and play rugby in the second half. And with Toulouse’s nine tries blitzing the visitors, life became comfortable for the match officials.

Busby is considered as a future international referee, and I imagine that he will get a Tier 1 Test before long. If so, he will become the first Ulster Society referee at top level since Brian Stirling wrapped up a super career in 1996. It will be the end of a long wait.