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We are sitting at the epicentre of an era of rugby professionalism. Players are conditioned in every aspect of on-field technique, tactical awareness, nutrition, and physical and psychological preparation, and backroom staffs proliferate. Most importantly of all, referees are beginning to view rugby as a professional career.

The average age of match officials is getting dramatically younger. The referees who managed games at the Six Nations – Englishmen Karl Dickson, Luke Pearce, Christophe Ridley and Matt Carley; New Zealanders Paul Williams, James Doleman and Ben O’Keefe; Nic Berry and Angus Gardner from Australia; Frenchman Mathieu Raynal, Italian Andrea Piardi, Andrew Brace of Ireland and Nika Amashukeli from Georgia – collectively averaged in the mid-thirties.

That list contains the names of the best the rugby world has to offer. Raynal promptly retired from international duty at the end of tournament, at the grand old age of 42, following hot on the heels of Wayne Barnes, who stepped back after refereeing the 2023 World Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa, at 44.

Rugby World Cup retirement” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Wayne Barnes brought down the curtain on a glittering career by taking charge of last year’s Rugby World Cup final (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Meanwhile Pearce was one of only two referees to be awarded more than one match in the tournament, a sure sign of his burgeoning status as one of the ‘probables’ to replace Barnes as the top official in the global game. Pearce had already set the bar when he became the youngest-ever member of the RFU National Panel at only 21 years old, back in 2009.

He was so fresh-faced at his initiation that his appearance in the Kingsholm changing sheds startled Gloucester’s Tom Voyce. When Pearce entered to check boots and issue guidelines for the game ahead, the wingman thought a student had found his way in there by mistake. In his first season, an angry Coventry supporter threw a punch at Pearce after he had awarded three penalty tries to Moseley during a raucous local Midlands derby. The referee’s reward was a trip to Siberia to oversee the Russian cup final. Fortunately, he returned.

Fifteen years later, refereeing has taken root as Pearce’s vocation, a mainstream profession rather than a part-time afterthought.

Pearce is one of a cadre of young referees in the Premiership embracing the opportunity to power up advances in the game to warp speed. With Wasps, Worcester Warriors and London Irish knocked down like a row of dominoes by financial insolvency, there is every incentive to make rugby as attractive to the average joe as possible.

There are 38 separate infractions at the tackle and post-tackle alone, so the focus is ‘big picture’ rather than penalising technical detail, and driving the game into extinction-by-whistle. As Barnes himself recently observed, “what the lawbook doesn’t contain is an overriding principle which should be: keep the game going by blowing your whistle as little as possible”. That is the tenet the current generation uphold above all else. The caricature of the pompous, preening hair-splitter from the northern hemisphere is old hat.

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Ollie Sleightholme embarks on a charge during a terrific Gallagher Premiership encounter between Northampton and Saracens (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In most areas, refereeing in the Premiership has caught up, and in some aspects surpassed, its counterpart south of the equator in ‘keeping the game going’. After 13 rounds of the Premiership and five of Super Rugby Pacific, the average number of tries per game, per team is 3.3 in England, and 3.7 in Australia and New Zealand. The average number of rucks built during a game is roughly equivalent [169 to 177], and the number of penalties awarded during a game is the same, at around 20 per match.

The big difference is ball-in-play time, which is also related to the amount of infield kicking. The ball is in play for 38.2 minutes in England, three minutes more than it is in Super Rugby, but the ball is kicked an average of eight times more per game in the northern hemisphere than the south [32 kicks to 24].

There are two areas within this overall framework where top English referees are driving the game. They are forcing teams to kick before it becomes just another set-piece [the notorious ‘caterpillar’-based box-kick], and that makes the kick return more viable as a weapon. They are also refusing to give easy penalties to the defensive side at the breakdown, which renders ball-in-hand attack more attractive.

On Friday evening, Pearce refereed the climactic clash between the Premiership’s top two clubs, Northampton Saints and Saracens. He awarded a paltry 16 penalties in total, and only five of those came in the first half. A review of the penalties awarded by timeline makes for fascinating reading. Pearce blew for just one penalty in the opening 20 minutes, four in the second quarter, five in the third and six in the final 20.

Accepted wisdom is the referee blows early and often to establish the ground rules, but in Pearce’s distribution that theory is turned on its head. Pearce hardly whistled at all in the first half hour, and the game was running at a point per minute. He encouraged freedom of approach first up, and backed the attacking side instead.

Of those 16 penalties, five were awarded for scrum indiscretions, five for offences at the ruck and four for offside. The keynote of those ruck/offside penalties is eight of nine favoured the attacking side. Pearce did not award a single penalty at the breakdown to the defensive team until the 75th minute.

He encouraged turnovers to play through without sanction whenever they occurred, and he gave the benefit of the doubt to the attack when 50/50 pilfers were obtained.

 

 

The first clip was one of two examples where Saints’ Courtney Lawes poached the ball at a key moment, only to be on the wrong end of the whistle. Lawes is first to the tackle and then pulled off his feet by a one-arm grab technique by Owen Farrell. Does he get a lift on the ball before losing his balance and falling forward? It is impossible tell for sure, but Pearce stays on the positive side of neutral and rewards the attacker rather than the defender.

In the second clip the same two players are involved, albeit in different roles. Lawes could be penalised immediately for attacking the Saracens scrum-half Ivan Van Zyl before he can play the ball. But Pearce plays through the offence and a short pass from Farrell puts hooker Theo Dan through a gap. That is the referee’s reward for making a positive decision to keep the game going.

Pearce added some significant hurry-up to scenarios when players tend to be buying time to regroup – at reset scrums, injury breaks and on two yellow card decisions which both took less than 30 seconds to asses. When Saints goalkicker Fin Smith was looking to run down the clock by taking the full 90 seconds in front of the posts on a conversion, Pearce prompted him to take the kick with half a minute remaining on the shot clock, to sustain the flow.

The single most significant acceleration was the five-second ‘countdown’ on box-kicks.

 

Pearce was giving Van Zyl and Northampton counterpart Tom James ‘the fingers’ throughout the game, showing all five as the prelude to a countdown for the kick. He was unafraid to follow through by awarding a scrum to the opponent if the time was exceeded. That meant less time for the dreaded caterpillar to form, less time to measure the kick, less time for the chase to organise.

That insistence had consequences, both direct and indirect.

 

James was already feeling the pressure to get his ‘boxy’ away when Theo McFarland came off the side of the ruck to block it down and score.

In the second half, that pressure was reflected in a double-barrelled volley at Saints’ exit strategy.

 

 

In the first clip, James is again operating under countdown, and a big hole develops right up the middle, between the two wings of the chase for England back three Elliot Daly to exploit on the return. On the very next play, the Northampton nine goes back to an unfamiliar first receiver [Australian full-back James Ramm] for the exit and that too is charged down by England’s Ben Earl.

The Premiership is turning as wild and savage as the Serengeti. In round 13, Bristol thrashed league-leading Northampton 52-21, while Saracens routed bitter London rivals Harlequins 52-7 at Twickenham. When Saints and Sarries clashed at Franklins Gardens, the home side naturally came out ahead in a nine-try thriller, 41-30.

It was no more predictable on Sunday. Bath recovered from a 37-point deficit after 50 minutes at the Stoop to score the next 33 points, and come within four of overhauling Quins at the death.

It is primarily the attitude of the officiating which is creating a climate of creative uncertainty. With Pearce to the fore, the Barnes mantra ‘to keep the game going by blowing your whistle as little as possible’ is leading rugby forward to a more inviting future, for player and spectator alike.

His performance on Friday night was the model template for the younger breed of attack-oriented, career-minded referee, and it deserves all the kudos it receives.



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