Blog – All Blacks v Lions – Our views on *that* incident. And why the law needs changing

So our wish for us not to be talking about the officials hasn’t really worked out this week either. ‘Twas ever thus!

Firstly, what a great All Blacks v Lions series. Overall, I think most people would settle for a draw given the swings & roundabouts of the series, but think most rugby fans would prefer an outcome. This isn’t cricket after all!

But the incident in the last 2 mins of the match will live long in memories. The situation and the subsequent furore was, frankly of the making of M Poite, not then helped by the law book, or the willingness of anyone to overlook what actually happened. Again.  But we say up front, the referee Romain Poite made a mistake. The mistake was to blow a penalty immediately rather than play advantage, and then to say there had been a knock on. That lead everyone down a path, which he eventually retracted on.

Now the emotions have died back slightly, let’s look dispassionately at each element of that passage of play.

 

Was Kieran Read in front of the kicker at the restart?
Was Kieran Read in front of the kicker

Our view – we don’t think so. He certainly looked well ahead in real time. The TV footage cut from a narrow view to a wide view just after the ball had been struck. The first frame of the wider angle (left) shows Kieran Read (top of pic) and the ball (white blob in the A of the pitch marking) a second after it was kicked. If you mentally roll that back a frame or two, it would put Read behind or on the line (and the ball) as the ball was struck.

We don’t have a definitive answer, but the evidence suggests he wasn’t clearly and obviously in front of the ball.

Also noted that Jerome Garces was at the near side and took up a position on the half way line (bottom of the pic). It’s an unconventional position for an AR to be on at a restart kick (wold usually aim for the 10m line), so maybe he was watching for this specifically. We cant say for sure.

 

 

Was there foul play as Read made contact in the air?

This is one where in real time and the slo-mo and the freeze frame could lead you to different outcomes.  In real time, it looks like Williams (the Lions catcher) gets to it first, and Read hasn’t a realistic chance of getting the ball and there is a collision in the air. But slowing down, the freeze frame shows Read’s hand is there.

Was that a realistic chance of catching it?  We’d probably say so. With a leap like that, there comes momentum and there is contact, but it’s contact in the legal act of trying to gain possession of the ball.

When reviewing these sorts of incidents, TMOs and Refs often look at positions and heights of the protagonists. Ie Has one or both got off the ground, is one higher than the other etc etc.  In this incident, they both get airborn, Williams gets higher as he has a standing start and gets a supporting lift from CJ Stander behind him. Read still gets impressively high.

With all that, it’s hard to argue it’s foul play so we move on.

There is also no view that suggests Read actually touches the ball – or this would be a knock on (and have saved everyone a lot of angst!).

Is Ken Owens (Lions 16) in front of Liam Williams?

Yes. The one fact in all this that is beyond argument. Probably the only fact! He is moving back towards his own posts when the ball lands hits him/he collects it.

Does the ball travel forwards off Liam Williams?

The slow mo video below, and real time suggests it did not. At best the ball deviates to parallel. But none of them suggests the ball bounces forward off Liam Williams who attempts to catch the ball over his shoulder while facing his own posts.

Therefore our opinion is that there is no knock on. This becomes a hugely important issue in law and one that has been ignored by many commentators (ex officials or not) since Saturday night.

Here’s the slow mo of the contact in the air, the ball not going forward and Owen’s catching it:

 

What laws are we talking about?

11.6 ACCIDENTAL OFFSIDE

(a)  When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside. If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

(b)  When a player hands the ball to a team-mate in front of the first player, the receiver is offside. Unless the receiver is considered to be intentionally offside (in which case a penalty kick is awarded), the receiver is accidentally offside and a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

11.7 OFFSIDE AFTER A KNOCK-ON

When a player knocks-on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage. Sanction: Penalty kick

 

Given the point above, 11.7 is no longer relevant.

But didn’t Romain Poite say it was a knock on?

Yes, he did. This is the major mistake, but not the one everyone is talking about. And where the law book starts to work against him if that’s what it was. If he deems it as a knock on, then 11.7 is in play and the unavoidable bit in 11.6 isn’t relevant.

But let’s say it was a knock on for a moment. Did Ken Owens “play the ball”?

Helpfully the law book doesn’t define what “play the ball” actually means. In this case, you can legitimately look at in two ways. 1) He caught it, so he must have played it. or 2)  It bounced so quickly to him and his reflex (being a trained professional rugby player) then made him catch the ball.

To us if you ‘play’ the ball, it is a conscious act. We would defy anyone who had a ball flung at them while walking down the street not to react to that and attempt to catch it.

Would anyone really see this as a penalty offence in a rugby match?

 

OK, so it wasn’t a knock on? Accidental offside then under 11.6?

Yes. If you follow through the logic above, Ken Owens could not avoid the ball so, with no advantage, a scrum award to the non-offending side is a viable outcome.

The whistle went. Why did the TMO review it?

After the whistle goes, there doesn’t appear to be any AR input from Jaco Peyper, but some questions from Lions players. Romain asks “George, can we check ‘in the air’? – an informal review at this stage. After another replay (presumably on stadium screen too), Read is present with RP as is Sam Warburton. Then play is formally stopped for a review we assume at Romain’s instigation.  Romain says “We’re checking the challenge in the air”

He joins Jaco to watch screen. You can hear Romain say to Jaco “he goes for the ball”. And then he goes on to say “playing in an offside position. No audible reply from JP, nor is he involved in, or inputs to the subsequent discussion. Maybe as a result of last week’s controversy.

RP to TMO:  “Red touches the ball the second time he was in front.”

TMO: “Those are all the angles.”

RP: “Are you happy for the knock on. The challenge in the air was fair. Penalty kick against 16 red in front?”

TMO: Yes I am.

RP: OK

Romain then starts to walk back to the restart spot. Read and Warburton still there – he says “Fair challenge” [to both Captains while using hands to demonstrate he’s talking about the challenge in the air]  and then he says “Oui, Jerome”.

Clearly he is getting a message through the comms from his compatriot Jerome Garces.  There is then 24 seconds as Romain walks back to the spot, some argy bargy between Read, Owen Farrell, and Warburton who is urging his players to line up for a quick tap to be taken.

RP now speaks to both captains. “We have deal about the Red 16. He did not deliberately play the ball. It was an accidental offside. We go for a scrum to black.”

Read tries to say it’s not accidental.  RP holds ground.  Scrum then restarts.

We can only infer that Jerome Garces gives his view that it was deliberate, maybe even that it wasnt a knock on. We’ll never know for sure.


So the TMO did not review the offside element?

It is 100% clear that the TMO was brought into play here to check on the actions of Kieran Reed in jumping for the ball and whether it was foul play or not.  That is what the TMO checked and reported back on. While the question that the TMO was asked when reporting back was the wrong way around, it wouldn’t be for the TMO to offer a view on the offside element – again also, not one that was involved in controversy last week. That is the referees responsibility which he owns.

It is perfectly OK for an AR to offer a view to a referee – especially when these two are very well know to each other and are compatriots and friends.  The law provides for it, within the last part of 6.A.7, although the pedants would say 6.A.6 say it’s not:

 

So correct outcome?

In our view, yes. But the way it all played out was poor. Why so? In our view:

  • There was no Foul Play in the attempt to jump for the ball.
  • There was no knock-on.
  • Ken Owens was in front of his team mate who last touched the ball.
  • He could not avoid the ball heading at him.
  • It was accidental offside as covered by 11.6.
  • Was it poorly communicated by Romain – absolutely yes.
  • Did he change his mind? Yes.
  • Was he influenced by Assistant Referee, Jerome Garces? Yes
  • Is that OK? Yes, but it could have been done on camera.
  • Is “We have a deal” appropriate language to speak to the Captains? Not really, but in a high pressure moment at the end of a high pressure few weeks, a little leeway for a non-English speaking person can be granted. We suspect, he meant “We have a decision” which is what he normally says
  • Is it OK for him to change his mind? Yes, but the picture it paints is not good for Romain or the game.

The law needs changing

Let’s play this out for a moment as if the ball was knocked on. Are we really saying in 11.7 that a player who does what Ken Owens did here, in a reflex moment, was a rugby incident worthy of a penalty offence?  The same outcome of a high tackle. The same as a scrum collapse. The same as blocking or obstruction? The same as dissent?

Are we really saying that after a 10 match tour, a drawn test series, the third match level in a draw, should all be decided by a penalty “offence” like this?

We’d hope that anyone involved in rugby wouldn’t want this. And we’d ask World Rugby to look at this closely. It’s the same law that led to the Craig Joubert incident in RWC2015.

The fact that if this had been a knock on, would have lead to a situation where you could argue in law, either side of the debate and appear to be right. That needs fixing before it happens again.

 

 

35 Comments

  1. I would be grateful if a skilled referee would confirm my thoughts- I’m a Level 9 Referee and always learning…
    A. If it WAS a knock on, then immediate penalty advantage law applies. If Owens had caught and held the ball, then this would be a penalty to the All Blacks. As he did not control the ball, advantage should be played, with Barrett (black 15) bursting through, material advantage would have come.
    B. With NO knock-on, the ball was by definition passed parallel or backwards, as everyone agreed at the time. Owens is retreating at speed, whilst in front of Williams as Williams fumbled the ball, by the time Owens touches the ball, which wasn’t knocked on, surely Owens is onside? My understanding of the law is the position/ path of the ball, not the person catching it??
    C. Take the hypothesis that Williams deliberately passed the ball parallel from the air with Owens 5 metres back. Owens runs forwards, but too fast so is in front oft he ball as it reaches him. Owens spins around (now facing his own posts) to catch the ball. At the pint that Owens touches the ball, all the players are in exactly the same place. Owens is inside in this scenario?
    What am I missing?

    • Thanks for the questions.
      A – yes. Romain blew too early. There was an advantage to be played through.
      B – Owens was still in front of his team mate (Williams) who last played the ball so is offside in open play and subject to sanction.
      C – In that scenario, Owens would never have been offside so that’s fine. Although the phrase “Owens runs forward, but too fast” is pushing our capabilities of thought process.. 😉

      Keep on learning!

      • I think the point here is that, as all this is unfolding, all the officials think the ball has gone forward. Also, when Owens does play the ball he is behind Williams. But again the officials still believe the opposite. In those circumstances Poite has made a reasonable ruling that Owens did not deliberately play the ball, but acted on instinct.
        Poite’s action in signalling a penalty was a little rash. He could have given himself a little more time. But he recovered well. He is only human and somehow I think he was uncomfortable with his first reaction and looked for a better outcome. Experience?

  2. Your article is well considered, but written to a pre-existing outcome… Let’s work through equally slowly.
    First off, the challenge in the air. Read was never attempting to catch the ball, only to bat it back, all agree (bar Jonathan Kaplan) that it was fine. I’m happy with that.
    So, the contact with the ball in the air. It’s not clear and obvious that Read touched it. However, it’s fairly clear that, as he was falling backwards, the ball comes off the inside of Williams’ right arm and finishes in a position forward of himself. Relative to Williams – and his motion at the time of contact – the ball has travelled forwards.
    Regardless of whether or not Williams has knocked it on, Owens is offside in general play. He is – rightly – retreating. He then catches the ball. He drops it, Anton Leinert-Brown retrieves it and then Poite blows his whistle.

    So, there’s a few points here.
    1. Is catching a ball instinctively “laying the ball?”
    2. The law says that the player is ‘liable to sanction’ if ‘an opponent is denied advantage’.

    On point 1, I would argue that an instinctive catch is still playing the ball. We drill players on catch/pass in hope that it becomes instinctive. Because 99.99999% of the time, it won’t create a series-deciding penalty! You want that receiver to be able to catch a short ball he’s not expecting just before hitting the defence on what he thought was just a decoy run. And that has to be done on instinct. So catching the ball – instinctive or deliberate – is playing the ball. There is no requirement for a read of intent in the law, no requirement for a referee to determine whether or not someone consciously or instinctively acted. Only that they acted. This is where I differ with your interpretation.

    On the second point, if play had continued there’d have been no penalty! The penalty was created by… Poite blowing the whistle! Without the whistle, the opponent isn’t denied advantage (because Owens gave up possession), so there’s no sanction liable to be paid. Poite was actually the reason why it was a penalty. If it’d been play on, and then Leinert-Brown knocked it on when Farrell tackled him, it would have been a scrum for accidental offside, as Owens hadn’t prevented the advantage being taken, but the advantage for the knock on hadn’t been taken in full.

    So ,there’s two major failings here, one of which we debate, the other being easily and widely agreed. The first being that Poite bottled it – he didn’t trust his instincts, he decided to listen to an Assistant Referee standing 50+m away rather than his own reaction (less than 20m away) and the nearside AR.

    But the greatest issue was that Romain was far too quick to blow his whistle. If he plays advantage, there’s no need for a penalty, and we aren’t talking about him today. It’s a great lesson to all referees – calling and advantage and waiting an extra 5 seconds before blowing an infraction doesn’t hurt anyone.

    • The relative motion of the ball relative to the catcher is not the key to whether its knocked on. Imagine if Williams is running backwards (i.e. towards his own goal line) all by himself attempting to catch the ball coming over his shoulder. if he touches the ball, and it falls from his hands, but the ball is still travelling backwards when it hits the ground, no one would call that a knock on, regardless if Williams was travelling backwards faster than the ball as it it hits the ground. Why should it be different just because there are people around him?

      • It kind of is, in the same way that a fair pass can travel 2m forward in absolute terms, provided the motion of the ball is less forward than the motion of the ball in the hands of the ball carrier. If the ball carrier gets hit immediately after passing, it’s more likely to look like a forward pass… Because relative motion shows that the ball is in fact travelling forward. But if the passer were to continue apace, the ball’s gone backwards.

        In the same way, if a person is running backwards, or sideways, and they knock the ball such that its progress is less backwards than originally, they’ll be sanctioned for a knock on. I’ve seen it done, at the elite level. In space (i.e. no immediate pressure/people around the ball). The player might be chasing a grubber, reach down to collect it, and the ball goes mostly sideways, not as vertically on the field as previously. And it’s awarded as a knock on.

        The biggest issue, though, is that it’s pretty clear that Ken Owens thought it was a knock on, Romain Poite ruled it a knock on, and Jaco Peyper ruled it a knock on. Even Jerome Garces ruled it a knock on! Though he was 50+m away, so I’ve no idea why his opinion was considered more highly than Jaco’s, or Romain’s initial opinion.

        But again, the knock on or otherwise – and it’s nigh on impossible for people to work out whether or not it was a knock on from a singular camera angle (because we don’t have parallax, as we would from having two eyes watching it live) – is irrelevant. Because it’s still a penalty under 11.1, if Poite is silly enough to blow the whistle before seeing what happens (which he was).

  3. It has been shown that there is no knock on.

    Owens therefore plays the ball (accidentally or otherwise) behind where Liam Williams last played it. Thus putting himself onside before playing it.

    If there is no knock on, Owens cannot be accidentally offside.

    • Under 11.2, none of the actions that would put Owens inside have been met. It’s a picky point but 11.2a says the offside player has to go behind the team mate who last played it, not the point at which it was played by that team mate. If you look at the slow mo, because of the dynamics of the contact point Owens never gets behind Williams. So he remains offside.

      • So whilst the ball did not go forwards, because Williams went further back than the ball Owens was never put onside even though he played the ball that was not a knock on. Emphasis on player putting another onside, not the ball at point of last contact. Thank you for clarifying! Greatly appreciated! As you say, a 0.01% probability I will ever see the occasion where the ball player is knocked further back than the ball and 0.001% probability that it will be a Championship decision! Never stop learning!

        • Wow. That would means that if a player running backwards fumbles the ball backwards towards his own line (so no knock on), that as it rolls along the turf, and his his team might covering back (who was upfield when his colleague fumbled the ball) dives to recapture the ball, that team mate might be offside if the original runner kept running backwards at speed? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that called.

    • Matt, I agree with you on this point and not on the article. If the ball does not go forward how can there be any offside?

      In the end the right decision but apparently for the wrong reasons. Poite blew the whistle when there had been no offence. Black in possession at the time, so scrum black. Simples.

      • The law book doesn’t talk about the ball, it talks about the players. See 11.1,2&3.

        Regardless of what happened to the ball, Owens was in front of Williams when Williams played it. To be put legally onside, Owens would have to go behind where Williams was, which he didn’t because Williams was also going backwards. It’s a pretty unique scenario!

        • Could Owens not have been put onside by another player?

          If Owens was retreating and so making an attempt to get on side and another team mate (possibly out of shot) was level with Williams when he played the ball but then found to be in front of Williams by the time Owens touched it, would Owens not be onside by virtue of the fact he had moved backwards and drawn level with a team mate who was behind the ball when it was played?

          A little complicated and would need observant ARs and a good TMO to spot but as this is being debated it’s worth a discussion.

          • Certainly could have been, but we don’t think it did. Everyone who could have done that, we think, was in the shot that we have on the article

      • The accidental offside part is actually carefully explained earlier in this thread- Owens needs to be put onside by Williams himself, not the ball. Owens needed to be put onside by retreating in line with Williams before going for the ball. This peculiar point in law is raised because Williams was being driven further backwards than the ball by black jerseys. In any normal play, Williams would have continued moving forwards after hitting the ball in the air, Owens would have been put onside by Williams going past him and we wouldn’t have noticed, focusing on the possible knock-on.

        • Isn’t Owens put onside by the Lions winger who was behind Williams when he palyed the ball and in front of Owens when he played it?

          • Not that we can see Peter! Only a superman speed could have done that (and thats looking at the slow mo in the article, never mind in real time!)

    • Who really sums it up the situation as it has not been proved that It wasn.t a knock on and I don’t accept that Owens by catching the ball did not play the ball.1 Poite brought this on himself. I feel that Poite and Garces really let refereeing and rugby by having that conversation and letting Poite change his mind when he agreed it was a penalty with the TMO. A conversation which only Peyper and Ayoub other than the two French referees heard. Really bad and I believe brings refereeing into disrepute. Rolland should come out and censure them for this action. Or will the referee’s mafia close ranks and cover up the deplorable way this decision was arrived at. Referees have a hard job but players are dealt with for bringing rugby into disrepute and id referees do so they too should receive punishment. I am talking not about the decision but the process that was entered into which was as crooked as you could think about. One is left wondering how much faith Garces has in Ayoub as it was very clear he was not interested in hearing him during the second test. I know he was the referee and is in charge but he had his mind made up on what he saw and felt he didn’t need any input from Ayoub, which at the time I thought was fair enough. Maybe Ayoub has too much to say and if it is felt he does then take him off the TMO panel. It is now obvious that Garces the assistant furthermost away from the action has had an overbearing part to play in Garces decision. Poite and Ayoub both agreed on a penalty but Poite’s mind was obviously changed by Garces. These two officials need to get this way of dealing with matters sorted out before they both appear together in the Sth Africa NZ game later in the year. We must never have such a shambolic ludicrous situation ver allowed to happen again.
      Finally, the law on the word playing the ball needs to be either defined and clarified and quickly because there is a contradiction as to how this can be read and the law applied as Poite instinctively believed it to be a penalty which was backed up by Ayoub yet it seems assistant Garces changed Poite’s mind.

      • I’m just a fan, so take this as you will. The term ‘playing the ball’ should be simply construed as ‘performing a rugby act with the ball’.

        Catching the ball is a rugby act. Getting hit accidentally by the ball is not a rugby act. Possession of the ball in Owens’ case is proved by the fact that he dropped/threw it down. It’s hard to drop/throw something away if you do not possess it. Owens played the ball.

        I am 50/50 on whether it was a knock-on, thus offside. A tough call whether it was forward or lateral, as camera angles are inconclusive (demonstrated so after days of learned adepts reviewing the incident at slow motion)

        TMO would have been greatly aided by a direct overhead view of the action.

        • Or another suggestion would be to add in “or instinctively catches” to 11.6 Accidental offside
          (a)
          When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, *or instinctively catches the ball*, player is deemed to be accidentally offside.

          Still not sure a scenario like this one warrants a penalty! We may be in danger of over engineering this to make sure it’s covered in words. 90% of people would say that Owens couldn’t avoid being where he was, and couldn’t avoid being hit by the ricocheting ball and did what most people would do and caught it. Could we just stick to common sense and say that’s accidental and not warranting a penalty?

    • The system works. Poite made a decision and then consulted. Figured he’d made an error and changed it.
      Not sure I agree with the forward, not forward discussion. For a knock on it’s either forward or not. Obviously as judged by the ref. A dropped ball is not necessarily a knock on.
      However a pass delivered by a runner at speed can be forward in relation to the pitch but backward in relation to the passer. Hence not a forward pass.

  4. “Are we really saying that after a 10 match tour, a drawn test series, the third match level in a draw, should all be decided by a penalty “offence” like this?

    We’d hope that anyone involved in rugby wouldn’t want this.”

    There’s a part of me that think this also included Romain Poites as well, that he reversed the decision in the spirit of the game (obviously the laws proved him right, but would have been easy for him to continue with the decision to give a penalty), that he was almost looking for a get-out on it, rather than knowing that the series be decided on a decision like that.

    Or am I just being a little bit too romantic about sportsmanship and spirit of the game at top level (and trust me, I was going to use “romaintic” there, but thought much better of it…)?

    • Ha – glad you didn’t… alas, we will never know what was happening in Romain’s head at that point! But let’s hope a little bit of it was like that. A calm moment of French romanticism amid the chaos of Eden Park

  5. The one thing the top referees like to say is let the players win the game not the referees decision.

    So I would like to think that they are all looking for a reason to not give a penalty.

    I’d like to think that in the same situation, I’d have the guts to make the same call. If it’s a cynical penalty or foul play then you have to call it but otherwise let the players win the game.

  6. Thanks for clearly laying out the relevant law. I think you need to take into account that it’s just as likely (if not more so) that RP was referring to the absence of a knock-on by Read when he said “Are you happy for the knock-on?” (Ie: since he said that he needed to review the challenge in the air, then followed by asking if the TMO was happy that there was no knock-on, as well as that the challenge was fair, he then assessed Owen’s effort to get onside and his contact with the ball as delivering an accidental offside). In which case RP acted on more-or-less the same process of disentangling the problem as you do above, and in real time under phenomenal pressure. There was clearly some issues with the restart, and uncertainty about whether AB or Lions disadvantaged by it with players on both sides screaming foul, so playing advantage was not really an option. As a Lions supporter, I had my fair share of frustration with some big calls (the forward pass call out of the back of the hand that ended a promising try-scoring opportunity for example, and if people want to complain about RP’s scrum award, I think its reasonable to go back and look more closely at Read’s offside since the ball travels far more quickly than a runner so the frame you mention almost certainly shows him offside) but I have to say I thought the referees did a brilliant job all things considered and contributed to a great sporting occasion by giving the teams the best chance to separate themselves for a result. More clarity and uniformity to the laws will never go amiss though (offside and forward passes relative to the body or the ball etc). Looking forward to the next tour already!

  7. I agree that it is the position of the player that counts and that Owens is offside. It is therefore also clear that advantage should have been played to allow ALB to continue to play. The whistle was blown after Owens drops the ball and whilst it is still bouncing, just an instant before ALB picks it up.

    I also really have to wonder where this idea of romance and “fairness” comes in. Players are constantly penalised for unintentional penalties. In the previous test Faumuina accidentally caused a penalty when the attacking player jumped in the air to field a high pass. That was a referee decision that decided a game. Was that wrong? Did that decision “let the players decide the game?”

    Two other penalties in the 3rd test were given when players were pinned and were physically unable to roll away. Again accidental. Are we saying that referees giving penalties for accidental play is OK unless it is a series decider? I’m perfectly open to accidental play leading to scrums rather than penalties, but there has to be consistency.

  8. Let’s celebrate some wonderful refereeing in the series. All three Test matches were reffed superbly. That’s not to say perfectly. We are all human and make mistakes. But the standard was very high.
    Poite was very quick with his penalty decision at the end but managed to extricate himself and the game from what would have been an unfair outcome.
    The ball went backwards from Williams. Owens took the ball behind Williams. It was open play. No real offside to consider. Accidental offside was a sensible restart.
    (If you are watching the replay, use the signage on the pitch to pick up the direction).

      • The question is James, could he avoid receiving the ball – to is it just landed in his arms and he instinctively caught it and then dropped it. With no knock on, that’s accidental. In our view.

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