A life of fine lines and perfect timings

Wayne Barnes and Jaco Peyper, who will referee Sunday's quarter-finals, discuss the sometimes thankless task of making the big calls.

TOKYO, 20 Oct – Was that a forward pass? Surely that was offside? These are the often heated debates which rage in bars and living rooms across the world whenever close calls are made in a big match.

Even in this modern digital era, with the advent of TMOs and video replays, some fans find it hard to understand why certain decisions have gone against their team.

Of the two, the forward pass is the most straightforward to explain. As English referee Wayne Barnes, pictured above – who is officiating at his fourth Rugby World Cup and will be in charge of Japan-South Africa on Sunday – put it: “It’s not about the direction that the ball eventually ends up, it’s about the direction it’s travelling in as it leaves the hands. So, when a TMO comes in, the referees are looking at the hands and the ball.”

However, despite the array of camera angles available to referees, video replays can often provide conflicting messages, which sometimes makes decision-making a tad tricky.

“Sometimes one camera angle shows one thing, and one camera angle shows another, but if it’s clear to everyone that it was a forward pass, we should be giving it,” said 40-year-old Barnes. “If there was some doubt, we reward the attack because we don’t want to stop the game, we want continuity.”

Getting such big decisions spot on requires match officials to work as a closely-knit team of four – referee, two assistant referees, and the video referee. Having these extra sets of highly trained eyes is particularly crucial for policing the offside rule when infractions typically happen within a split second.

“It happens rapidly,” said South African official Jaco Peyper, 39, who will referee his 50th test when Wales play France in Oita.

“The assistant referees know what they’re looking for, but there’s two types. One is when a team are ready to play again before the defence are ready. Those ones are probably easier because they never get onside and you get a clear line. And then you have the other ones where they get back onside, but they have a false start or they fly off the line because they’re feeling the heat. They’ve got three players coming in so they’ve got to shut down the space. Little bit more difficult to judge, those ones.”

Barnes points out that the fans back home do not always realise just how disciplined teams are, so many instances where a play may appear to be clearly offside on the television screen, is actually legal.

“You go and have a pint down your local, and the amount of times I will be told by fans or friends that a player is offside, and I say to them, ‘If you just press pause when that No.9 picks up the ball, you will be amazed at how disciplined these teams are now,’” he said.

“It’s all about timing. People don’t appreciate the discipline of the teams, and this is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make sure that when we blow our whistle, we get it right, and when an assistant referee calls it, he’s certain they’re offside. And those timings are so tight.”

RNS dc/sw