The game between Scotland and Australia marked Romain Poite’s final international refereeing appointment, in a long career dating back to 2007.
After officiating in 72 Tests over 14 years, the 46-year-old is returning to his day job in the French police force now that his time on a rugby field is done.
It is probably fair to say that there will not be too many fond farewells from the Southern Hemisphere. Mr. Poite was at the epicentres of controversies at the end of two tension-bound series involving the British & Irish Lions in 2013 and 2017. Neither turned out in the Southern Hemisphere’s favour.
Back in 2013, he had yellow-carded Australian tighthead prop, Ben Alexander, by the middle of the first half of the decisive third Test in Sydney, for little more than standing still and watching a wave of red Lions’ forwards rolling westwards around his right shoulder at the scrum.
It was all painfully predictable. In the article, I asked the question, “Can the Lions create the opportunity for Poite to penalise and/or card Ben Alexander at set-piece?”, and the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’.
Four years later, and he was at the heart of another dispute which deprived New Zealand of a series win against the Lions at the very end of the final Test.
After initially awarding a penalty for offside against the tourists on a kick-off in 78th minute, Poite reversed his decision and called a scrum instead on review:
The main problem with refereeing controversies is that they tend to forefront the match official and his decisions ahead of the play on the field, and Poite was again the central actor in the drama that unfolded at Murrayfield.
Australian head coach Dave Rennie was certainly in no doubt about Romain Poite’s influence on proceedings in his post-match comments.
“We got pinged a bit in possession from cleaning out and various other things and we have to make some shifts there.”
“I thought it was a bit of a mess. We’ll feedback directly to the referee. I guess it’s a tough area to adjudicate. As happens every week around the scrum, I certainly didn’t agree with a number of the decisions.”
In a desperately tight game the balance of the 50/50 calls is paramount, and on Sunday it is fair to say that Scotland got the lion’s share of them.
Let’s take a look at some examples where there was some considerable doubt shrouding the refereeing decisions made by Romain Poite. Perhaps the most obvious instance occurred in the build-up to Scotland’s first try of the game, a cleverly-worked decoy play off a lineout:
There is a new trial law relevant to this scenario, outlawing the practice of pods of three or more players being pre-bound prior to receiving the ball – the sanction being a penalty kick:
Law 9.22: Teams must not use the ‘flying wedge’
Definition: An illegal type of attack, which usually happens near the goal line, either from a penalty or free-kick or in open play. Team-mates are latched on each side of the ball-carrier in a wedge formation before engaging the opposition. Often one or more of these team-mates is in front of the ball-carrier.
There were clear images from a number of different angles illustrating that the Scottish forward pod at the front of the line was pre-bound prior to receiving the ball from the catcher Jamie Ritchie:
In his discussion on the big screen with TMO Marius Jonker, M. Poite only appeared to consider whether the two Scotland blockers on either side of Grant Gilchrist (in the red hat) were ahead of him – and hence offside – when the drive commenced. They weren’t. He ignored the more pertinent issue of whether they were pre-bound before ever receiving the ball, and they were.
As ever, the breakdown threw up a number of fractious inconsistencies. Wallaby number 12 Hunter Paisami was penalized for making an extra movement on the ground to present the ball in a position right on the Scotland goal-line:
The relevant guidelines call for:
* Ball carriers to be allowed only one dynamic movement after being tackled.
* Crawling, or any secondary movement other than placing or passing to be penalised.
* Tacklers to be expected to roll away immediately in the direction of the side-line. This will be a referee’s “number one priority” at the tackle.
Paisami is probably guilty of making an extra movement on the ground, and there is a reason for it. It is clear from this slow-motion angle that the Scotland tackler to Paisami’s left does not immediately release the ball-carrier, in fact he does the opposite – but he is not Romain Poite’s number one priority.
Compare that with this sequence with Scotland in possession in the second period:
Scotland right wing Darcy Graham is tackled and held, and a ruck forms above him, then he picks up and drives forward again without attracting any penalty at all. If this does not constitute a ‘secondary movement’ on the ground, what does?
Another bone of contention arrived in the form of a yellow card issued to Wallaby tight-head prop Allan Alaalatoa just before half-time, in a rehearsal of that position right on the Scotland goal-line and underneath the posts:
There was no ‘swinging arm’ as M. Poite suggested in his discussion with Marius Jonker afterwards, it is more a case of Alaalatoa using his right arm to support his own bodyweight as he rides over the top of Izack Rodda’s carry, and making light, incidental contact with the head of the tackler, Scotland number 8 Matt Fagerson in the process.
As Scotland’s ex-international captain John Barclay said in TV commentary, “you can find an example of this kind of contact at every single ruck in the game”.
In fact, Allan Alaalatoa himself had made much the same one-man cleanout earlier in the half, without attracting any sanction from the referee or review from the TMO:
This time the Brumbies man cocks his left arm rather than his right, but it is essentially the same action taken to move the tackler (Scotland loose-head Pierre Schoeman) over to his side of the ruck.
As usual with Romain Poite, the scrum and the penalties associated with it had a bloated, disproportionate impact on the game as a whole. Only a miserable 55% of the 20 scrums in the game were completed satisfactorily, and Scotland won the penalty count at the set-piece five to one.
The Wallaby loose-head prop James Slipper came in for Poite’s special brand of individual attention:
The ball is already at the number 8’s feet and playable, Scotland are not driving forwards and the referee and his touch judges cannot be sure of the source of the collapse when it occurs – why not allow the ball to be played out?
A far more obvious penalty on the Australian feed was ignored:
There are at least three offences after Australia drive the scrum forwards. Both Scotland flankers have disengaged from their binds and the loose-head has stood up out of the set-piece. Take your pick, or do nothing. M. Poite chose to sit on his hands (or his whistle).
The scrum controversy persisted even after replacements had come on:
The law (10.a) requires that “the front-rows adopt a crouched position if they have not already done so. Their heads and shoulders are no lower than their hips, a position that is maintained for the duration of the scrum.” Instead, Scotland tight-head Oli Kebble (who normally props on the other side) dips his shoulders immediately after engagement, while Angus Bell bends like a hoop with the effort of trying to keep him above ground.
On the rare occasions when the scrum did stay up and straight, the Wallabies hinted that they were quite capable of using the ball it produced:
It is never a good sign when the referee becomes more of a hot topic than the game itself, and there were probably too many areas on Sunday where Romain Poite was not quite up to speed with either the intent, or the detail behind the new laws.
Especially since the arrival of the new breakdown guidelines, it is a young man’s game – not least for referees. The top four officials in the English Premiership (Wayne Barnes, Matt Carley, Luke Pearce and Karl Dickson) average 37 years of age, scarcely older than a senior player. Others, like Christophe Ridley (28) and Craig Maxwell-Keys (31), are younger still.
Despite a big improvement in the Australian lineout, Dave Rennie will be unhappy that his scrum, and most of his breakdown got penalised out of the game at Murrayfield. With Taniela Tupou likely to be missing because of the HIA protocol, he urgently needs another tight-head to step up behind Allan Alaalatoa. There was no reason for James Slipper to switch sides for a crucial period in the second half when the Wallabies could have opted for uncontested scrums.
Rennie will also be seeking clarification about what his players can and cannot do at the breakdown, and asking that opposing players be required to obey the same guidelines. He will be hoping that an official from the Southern Hemisphere (Jaco Peyper) will be more sympathetic to the fast, dynamic game that his Wallabies want to play at Twickenham, than Poite was in Edinburgh. It is not a forlorn hope, but it is fast becoming a hand where Australia needs all the cards to fall out in its favour.