Ask Owen Doyle: When should a rugby referee give a warning, and when should they give a penalty?

Our refereeing expert answers readers’ questions on warnings, complicit officials and breakdown etiquette

Brian Hughes, writing from Franklin County in Ohio, usefully brings up what’s still a hot topic – the recent incident when Ulster’s Cormac Izuchukwu kicked the ball out of the hands of Cardiff’s Tom Young, who was about to score. I wrote at the time, “the argument that it was okay because it wasn’t intentional doesn’t hold water”. Correctly, Brian counters that a kick is defined as “intentionally hitting the ball, etc”. And he wonders might that not let Izuchukwu off the hook if his kick was, in fact, unintentional?

My immediate impression was, and still is, that it was intentional, but I don’t believe that should come into the reckoning at all. The definition also states, “a kick must move the ball a visible distance out of the hand or along the ground”. So, it’s talking about normal, everyday kicks – I’d wager it wasn’t written to cover this sort of incident.

Anyway, judging intent requires psychic powers, which is another reason not to consider it. Kicking, or attempting to kick, the ball out of the carrier’s hands has always been expressly forbidden. While the jury may well be hung on this verdict, I’m not. Cardiff should have been awarded a penalty try.

David O’Connor, writing from London, is rightly concerned when defending players slide into the try scorer with their knees, and get away with it. I couldn’t agree more. It should be a very easy sanction for the referee and should be penalised, not ignored, whenever it happens. The match would then restart with a penalty at the halfway line, accompanied by whatever colour card is deserved.


Patrick Curran (Co Dublin) and Jonathan Hourihane (Co Dublin), both raise the matter of referees warning players not to infringe, rather than saying nothing and just delivering the sanction.

Some referees have definitely taken this way too far, and need to review their input. But if an offence can be prevented by, for example, saying, “stay onside,” it’s helpful in cutting down the number of sanctions. However, if a player has already committed a material offence, then it’s too late to be preventive, it’s advantage/sanction time. I use the word material because, as a rule of thumb, I detest penalties awarded for offences which haven’t had any effect on play whatsoever.

In a similar vein, Jason Kelly feels that referees are complicit with the defence when telling them to release a ball carrier whom they are holding up. It’s a fair point of view, but if the referee is equitable to both teams, when defenders may not be aware that the ball carrier’s knee has touched the ground, then why not tell them?

Mark Connolly posed some interesting questions on the advantage rule – why do referees come back for a knock-on, after the non-offending team has kicked the ball; and wouldn’t it help continuity if advantage was over once the non-offending team have possession?

I can understand refs going back for the knock-on if the kick is poor because it was made under pressure by the team who knocked on. Similarly, possession can be heavily pressurised.

However, it is absolutely galling to see referees going well past the outer limits on this one, returning for a scrum after a ridiculously long time, sometimes even going to the next ruck, plus several more passes. That is two bites of the cherry, and an unnecessary stoppage in play.

When there is no pressure, I’d suggest that only one pass is allowed. Then if the kick is mishit, or the next pass dropped, do not go back. World Rugby does want more continuity, and a consistent refereeing approach here is a definite opportunity. Right now it varies confusingly, even in the same match.

Bren Griffin (Western Australia), might be being a bit tongue-in-cheek when he asks my opinion on recent English press commentary that Leinster and Ireland are consistently illegal at the breakdown. It’s really a good yarn coming from a country not exactly renowned for good behaviour in this area; the Irish teams are not, by a long chalk, the worst offenders. But, generally, in recent times, teams are being given too much leeway with illegal protection over the ball. Not long ago it was called sealing-off.

Ben Emerson has noticed that a common refrain from the crowd at Leinster matches is some variation of “he’s offside, they’re all offside”. Who’s right, the officials or the fans, he asks? And Derek Place (Rotterdam), points out that some defences set up beyond the level of the feet of their last man in the breakdown, which definitely has to be high on the officials’ radar, as it’s of high importance.

After the loss to Japan in RWC 2019, World Rugby agreed with Joe Schmidt that several offside penalties against Ireland were incorrect. Nowadays, match officials have a greater awareness of fast, high-pressure defending, and know that what often looks completely offside, is not. There is only a split second between the ball coming out of the breakdown, and the defenders racing hard off their marks.

Closer to the goalline, when frantically defending continuous pick and drives, it’s difficult to be so disciplined, and we see more offsides called. Some of these look extremely tight, hardly qualifying for a tick in the clear and obvious box.

But, to answer the question, while the fans are not always wrong, my instinct is that the officials get it right a lot of the time.

It’s a shame that space doesn’t allow me to answer everything, but many thanks to all who took the trouble to write.