Nigel Owens, Australia and dealing with captains

It wasn’t long after the final whistle at Twickenham that the Australian media started to complain about Nigel Owens’ display in the World Cup final defeat to New Zealand. They lamented the lack of a whistle for a crucial forward pass in the 35th minute of the game and even went as far as suggesting Ben Smith should have received a red card for his lifting tackle.

An analysis of Australia’s results under Nigel Owens doesn’t make good reading. Prior to the World Cup final Australia had lost all 3 fixtures against New Zealand when Owens had refereed and had only won 7 of 14 tests in total. Perhaps more surprisingly is the statistic that Australia hadn’t won in their last 6 tests outside Australia when Owens has been the referee and had lost 4 of the last 5. Not a great record.

By contrast New Zealand are on a 13-game winning streak under Owens, which includes the 41-13 victory against New Zealand earlier this summer.

Australia’s Daily Telegraph quoted some interesting statistics that looked at the number of penalties awarded and conceded under Nigel Owens for both Australia and New Zealand.

Australia have played 14 games under Owens and been awarded an average of 7.9 penalties per game while they have conceded 10. New Zealand have been refereed by him 17 times and been awarded and average of 8.9 penalties and conceded 8.8.

The influence of captains?

The last blitzdefence article looked at how difficult it is for referees at the top level to officiate given the way the modern game is played. One area where coaches know they can influence the referee is through their captain and it is arguably Richie McCaw who is held up as the best example of the ability of certain players to influence referees’ decisions.

There is undoubtedly a sub-conscious bias by officials of all sports towards the more successful teams and the better players and with New Zealand being so dominant in rugby this must have an effect on the way they are refereed.

Using yesterday’s final as the test bed we have looked at the main interactions between Owens and the respective captains Stephen Moore and Richie McCaw.

Stephen Moore

Perhaps the most revealing interaction in the game was between Moore and Owens with just 5 minutes on the clock. New Zealand were attacking the Australian line when Owens gave a penalty against Pocock at the ruck. Owens says to Moore “hands all over the ground”, in reference to Pocock’s offence but as Moore starts to speak to Owens he replies with “Stephen, thank you” and then “Off you go please”.

This is the incident:

The interesting aspects of this are that Owens doesn’t feel he needs to explain his decision, the fact that he doesn’t make eye contact with Moore and finally that Owens hand gesture (the thumb pointing Moore away) is very dismissive . The words he uses and his body language suggests that Moore is unlikely to influence him.

Throughout the first half most of the interactions between Owens and Moore were negative from the Australian’s perspective. On 16 mins Owens penalised Moore for not rolling away at ruck when the ball was already won and Aaron Smith cleverly (or cynically) ran over him.

With 30 minutes on the clock and Australia having being awarded a penalty Moore wandered over to Owens and signalled a kick for the corner. His communication wasn’t very clear so Owens had to ask him “Going for corner or posts there?”.

The scrum was also causing issues in the first half so Owens had reason to speak to both front rows on a number of occasions. He had to do the same when Moore and his opposite number were accused by Owens of closing the gap at the front of the lineout.

Throughout the game Moore didn’t seem to have one “two-way” conversation with Owens. This was partly due to his communication style but when he did directly engage with Owens he was shut down.

In the 54th minute Moore was substituted.

Richie McCaw

Like Moore, McCaw’s first interaction with Owens (18th minute after NZ conceded a penalty on the Australian line) didnt end well with Owens telling McCaw “If I need you I’ll call you”.

The difference with Moore was that McCaw did manage to have a couple of two-way conversations with Owens. On 25 minutes as Carter lined up a penalty kick McCaw had words with Owens about the severity of the high tackle that led to the penalty. The audio picks up Owens saying “…more of a reaction tackle”. In this case Owens felt like he had to provide a justification for the award of just a yellow card.

When Ben Smith was given a yellow for the tip tackle Stephen Moore did try and speak to Owens as he reviewed the TMO but he was ignored as Owens continued to talk to the TMO.

The other interesting aspect of McCaw’s captaincy in the final was how seldom he did speak to Owens but when he did he picked occasions which were either in a critical part of the pitch or where there was some element of doubt. When the TMO had been involved he tended not to question the decision.

What difference does a captain make?

It is hard to statistically prove the impact of a strong captain or one that can exert influence on referees but a look at the World Cup final shows some differences in both the approaches of the respective captains and the way the referee dealt with each captain.

It is also difficult to know how much of the sub-conscious bias towards the stronger team plays its part in the dealings with the two captains but it is something World Rugby should do more research in to.

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