First impressions
Rowly Williams,
September 21, 2011
Alain Rolland has awarded the fewest penalites in the opening ten minutes of matches © Getty Images

So two weekends and a couple of days into the Rugby World Cup 2011, what are players, coaches, supporters, watching referees from all over the world, and the great viewing public, learning about the way the matches are being refereed or 'managed'.

Paddy O'Brien, IRB elite referee manager, has said his top five areas (scrum, maul, offside, the breakdown, foul play) is where he expects a lower margin of tolerance from his officials. Perhaps this suggests a need to 'clamp down' on teams early in the match, in order to put down a marker as to what is acceptable and what is not, what referees will penalise and what they do not. In effect a sounding out of each other.

Now we commented ahead of the tournament that smart players who operate on the right side of the referee will prosper and those who don't, well, won't. Other rugby luminaries have since done likewise and we don't claim the monopoly on common sense or even the downright obvious, but it is good to see that the majority seem to be thinking and saying, 'work with the referees'.

So with stats up to September 19 and with officials having refereed two matches each (one for Wayne Barnes), is this borne out? Are referees starting tough?

Referees Bryce Lawrence, George Clancy, Romain Poite, Craig Joubert and Nigel Owens showed a return of 13% & 14% of their penalties in the first ten minutes, the remainder of the awards had a levelling out, and then spiked in the last ten minutes to between 18% and 20%. Jonathan Kaplan had a 12% ratio start and ended only one % higher, however ten minutes before half time he moved to awarding 21% of all his penalties.

Steve Walsh had a similar start but a higher spike in the last ten minutes to 22%. Alain Rolland showed the lowest 0-10 minute start with only 7% of his penalties but moved into 23% in the last ten, the highest, (he also awarded the same % during 10-20 minutes). Dave Pearson has been another low 0-10 minute penalty starter with 9% but doubled to 18% in the 70-80 minutes area. Wayne Barnes in his 16 penalty match awarded 25% ten minutes before half time and 19% ten minutes after.

So make of these as you will, some might see it as some referees wanting to make a statement early on. Others: starting with a light touch to see if the players respond and, perhaps after not seeing this, having to get firmer. You might conclude some referees view periods either side of half time as important. But what it does show, is if there is a need for a penalty to be awarded in the closing stages of the match, when perhaps player anxiety about the win or loss and even desperation kicks in with players willing to 'do what they need to', referees are being resolute and penalising the offences.

As with all statistical snap shots, it merely starts debate. The minutiae of every minute in every match are not seen here of course. There are different opinions and conclusions based on your point of view (the joy of sport surely), but having started the debate the thing that will come through as we said at the outset, is if players work with referees the game benefits all.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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