With the Six Nations kicking off next weekend, all the referees involved will meet this Wednesday to prepare for and review how we can best officiate the tournament consistently as a group of officials and hopefully play a small part in helping deliver what will be hopefully a wonderful Six Nations.
Much like how the Wales team will hold team meetings after every game to review how they’ve played, all the referees will meet up under the guidance of Alain Rolland to discuss what we’ve done well and what needs improving. It’s all about improving the standard of refereeing and identifying any trends that are developing in the game that may need a higher focus on in the next rounds.
The benefit of these meetings is that they allow us to offer honest reviews of our officiating. If someone’s had a tough game, we can be honest and work on understanding what they did and how they can improve and what we all can learn as a group from it.
There’s a lot of pressure on the referees for this Six Nations too, more so this year than usual. There will be 14 referees officiating during the tournament and then 12 will be selected for the World Cup in Japan. There will also be seven assistant referees and four TMO’s chosen to go to to Japan. So there is a lot to play for, for the officiating teams too.
One of the important things that will come from Wednesday’s initial meeting is that whatever we decide from that meeting goes to the coaches. So if we decide to clamp down on certain things or determine how we’re going to officiate certain things, then Rolland, who is World Rugby’s high performance 15s match officials’ manager, will send those findings out to all the coaches.
So, for example, high tackles and crooked feeds at the scrum were some of the areas we spoke about before the last Six Nations and all the coaches then knew that was something we would be hot on. By communicating with the coaches, it hopefully helps improve the Six Nations as a product and a spectacle as the players can also play their part then in preventing issues happening.
Obviously, we don’t know yet what will be the specific key areas or trends that will be emphasised at that meeting, but the core things we as referees look out for tend not to change.
Broadly speaking, referees are looking at five key areas. The contact area, scrum, space, lineouts and foul play.
The contact area
Starting with the first of those, the contact area is a key thing for referees to look at if you want a flow to the game. If you ref the contact area well and teams have a positive approach to it, then you’ll likely have quick ball and a flowing game of rugby. The contact area is the key to the game.
If you don’t ref it well and let things descend into chaos, then you end up with slower ball and things can get messy.
The main priority for the referee is to ensure the tackler rolls away so the ball can be placed quickly. If you ensure he moves away, then it sets up the chance of a ruck or counter ruck. If you don’t, then things can get messy and it has a knock-on effect to the rest of the game.
The second part to reffing the contact area is ensuring it’s a fair contest. So that starts by making sure that the assisted tackler either lets go of the ball or the tackled player before trying to jackal and compete. The better you can keep that third or fourth man arriving on their feet initially, the better a contest it will be.
If you get those right, then you get a flow to the game.
The second area referees will be watching closely is the scrum. What officials are looking for there is a good, legal contest so it needs stability on the set up of it. When I or any other referee calls set, the scrum needs to be stable and static, with the props at a good height and not shoulder on shoulder before the set.
We need to see a space after the bind is called then a coming together when we call the set and not before. If you get stability then there is a much better chance of a good scrum contest taking place.
Then you can feed the ball in, then that height needs to remain and both teams need to push straight and forward with no one driving across up or down and looking for a penalty.
Bindings of the front row are important too. Both props should have a long bind and up not pulling or forcing down.
The next area is lineout and mauls. The first part of that is pretty straightforward to referee. It’s important to make sure the hooker is on his mark and then maintain a gap of around a metre between the two pack of forwards so you can get a proper contest in the air and easily see any foul play like taking out a lifter.
Then the maul is probably now one of the most complicated areas of the game to ref given how much is going on. The first thing to look for is that the maul is set up legally, so that means the ball carrier is at the front when it is formed. You can’t have any players beyond the ball acting as blockers when the maul is set up. This will make it virtually impossible to defend hence why teams will try and set up illegally if you allow them to.
Then after that, it again comes down to maintaining a legal contest, making sure that defensive players who join the maul don’t enter at the side and not illegally collapse it, while attacking players joining can’t latch on beyond the ball carrier, instead needing to join at the very back. The ball needs to be passed back to the back of the maul rather than the player himself slip back with it. That’s what makes it so difficult.
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The next area we look out for is space. What I mean by that is watching out for offsides. There’s no point having quick ball if players are offside and there’s no space to play in. If there’s no space, then it closes the game down and you tend to get drab affairs. So it’s important to ensure the defence are onside and behind back foot of the last man at the ruck and same from the set pieces’ too. Space is one area where I think we all as referees can improve our refereeing on.
Space also refers to kick chases. In the modern game, there’s a lot of kicks so it’s important to ensure chasers are onside. If they are not, then it closes down the legal space for the receiving team to counter attack and in and you end up with aerial ping pong. Players can’t chase a kick if they are in front of the kicker. They must be behind him or put onside before they can start chasing the kick.
Something we clamped down on in the autumn was players being in front of the kicker from kick-offs. It’s a minor thing but it just helps to improve the quality of the game slightly and, to be honest, it’s a simple thing to put right too so there should be no excuses for missing it.
The final aspect we’ll be looking at is foul play. In terms of that, the priority is being firm, fair and accurate. Player safety is of huge importance and a priority for referees. One of the big things at the moment is contact with the head especially if it’s illegal contact from a high tackle or leading with a shoulder or forearm and elbow. That’s obviously something we don’t want to see so it’s quite rightly a priority.
As a referee, the first thing you ask yourself after an incident is has there been foul play? Once you’ve answered that, then you deal with it through the guidelines in place and what has actually happened.
If there has been foul play, then there will always be a penalty. There might be a different sanction in terms of a red or yellow card, but foul play will always result in at least a penalty.
So, on the flipside, if there has been no foul play which means it’s just a rugby collision, then there won’t be a penalty.
Particularly with contact with the head, we as referees have to be strict and strong. It’s not a case of the game going soft as some people think. Everyone still wants to see big hits, and they still will but they have to be legal and safe.
A legal tackle must be an attempt to grasp the player with shoulder and arm wrapping same time and always must be below the shoulder line and neck. Get your tackles lower to eliminate the risk of a illegal high hit happening is what will be the strong message from referees.