Nigel Owens says Mathieu Raynal made a “strong refereeing decision” to award a scrum feed for the All Blacks at the conclusion of their Bledisloe opener against the Wallabies but admits he would have handled the controversial moment at the death differently.
Owens, the game’s most capped international rugby referee, added that the involvements of the TMO needed to be scaled back drastically and said “the enemy of the good” was unfortunately crippling the game as World Rugby seeks “perfection”.
It comes as Rugby Australia hit World Rugby with a please explain notice following the controversial Bledisloe Test.
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The rugby world was rocked on Thursday night when the French referee awarded the All Blacks a scrum feed in the 80th minute after Wallabies playmaker Bernard Foley took too long to take his penalty and kick for the sideline.
After repeatedly warning Foley, as well as his teammates, to play on, Raynal controversially awarded a scrum to the All Blacks after the Wallabies took 39 seconds in total before being pinged for time wasting.
The All Blacks took the opportunity with both hands, as Jordie Barrett scored in the corner from the resulting play to win the match for his side in what proved to be the final play of the game.
Raynal’s decision was unprecedented, with the French referee within his right to make the decision based on the laws.
But given his ruling has never been made in international rugby, with the All Blacks and Wallabies admitting they had not seen it before, it left many questioning Raynal’s match-defining decision.
Two-time World Cup-winner Tim Horan described the decision as a “disgrace” while former Wallabies great Matt Giteau said it was the “worst call” he had seen.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster said the decision was “clear cut” despite All Blacks veteran Sam Whitelock admitting he had not seen the rule implemented before.
Owens, who officiated 100 Tests before retiring from international refereeing in 2020, said the incident looked “worse that it was” because Foley was in the process of kicking the ball when Raynal blew his whistle.
Yet, the Welshman said his former colleague made a “strong” decision and was within his rights to award a scrum to the All Blacks.
“Sometimes the unpopular decisions are the correct decisions,” Owens told foxsports.com.au.
“To be fair to the referee, he’s made a strong decision.
“This is strong refereeing.
“He’s clearly given warning, there’s a lot of time gone, the rest of the backline is shouting at Bernard to get the ball off the field.
“The easy thing for a referee to do here, which others may well have done, would be to ignore the time-wasting and let him kick it out 35 seconds after the penalty is given and do nothing about it. No-one would have had a go at the referee. So he’s actually made a strong refereeing decision.”
One other well-respected international referee, who did not wish to be named, however disagreed, saying “it was the worst decision” since Wayne Barnes missed a crucial forward pass in the lead up to a French try in the All Blacks’ 2007 quarter-final loss.
Owens, who officiated the World Cup final between the All Blacks and Wallabies in 2015, believed Foley needed to accept his share of the blame for the incident.
“Bernard knows what he’s doing here,” he said.
“They are playing for time.
“People will say, could the referee have stopped the clock and added time on instead of blowing it up, yes he could have.
“But people need to stop pointing the finger here because the player needs to take his own responsibility here in taking too long, particularly when the referee has told him a couple of times to get on with it.
“The referee is not wrong here.”
Yet, Owens admits he would have handled the situation differently and pointed to a European Champions Cup match where he added time on after a team attempted to slow the game down.
“If I was in this situation, what I would be doing after is reviewing my own decision, could I have done anything differently here, could I have dealt with this in a different way?” he said.
“Could I have said, ‘right, it took you 20 seconds there, I’m now going to add 20 seconds to the clock,’ which I did in my last European final when something similar was happening and I added 20-30 seconds back onto the time.”
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He did, however, admit that that decision in itself added to some confusion.
“That caused some confusion because the clock in the stadium was not adapting to it even though I was, so there are different ways the referee can deal with this,” he said.
“But the referee is not wrong in the decision he’s made.”
Owens said referees needed to continue to police the laws hard, including time wasting in areas of the game like when halfbacks take too long to clear the ball, and added that Foley’s brutal lesson should be something everyone takes notice of.
“What I think you need to do here is, if there’s a clear time wasting, the referee needs to deal with it,” Owens said.
“We shouldn’t be asking whether a referee needs to do something different in a World Cup final, we should be asking the question, well I hope the players have learnt a lesson’ and won’t do so again to avoid this going forward.”
Meanwhile, Owens said World Rugby needed to scale back the involvement of the Television Match Official.
“I think the TMO is having far too much part in the game, I’d like to see referees going back out there and refereeing the games,” he said.
“Once you changed the protocol of the TMO just from the goal-line try yes or no, once you brought in going back two phases, back to foul plays, now offsides and obstructions, you’re bringing in a lot of stoppages and the referee who is out there either consciously or subconsciously thinks, if I miss something today, it doesn’t matter the TMO will pick it up.
“There is far too much influence with technology. I would like to see that reduced drastically.
“Is the game becoming too technical? The problem you’re having is, people are wanting the game to be perfect. You can’t.
“You can’t play a perfect game of rugby, you can’t coach a perfect game of rugby and you certainly can’t referee a perfect game of rugby, and if you try to be perfect then the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.
“If you’re trying to achieve perfection it will be at the detriment of the game because then the perfect will become the enemy of the good.”