It’s unusual in a team sport for one refereeing decision to determine the result of a major match quite as conclusively as happened today when Wales lost to France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final. Consequently, the referee Alain Rolland can be assured of notoriety online which will last a generation.
In the 18th minute of the first half the Wales captain Sam Warburton tackled French player Vincent Clerc illegally (for the detail of the law see 10.4 (j) here). Rolland immediately showed Warburton the red card, leaving Wales to play a man short for over an hour.
Many observers believe the tackle deserved a penalty and a yellow card at most (see, for example Dylan Cleaver in the New Zealand Herald). As Brendan Gallagher points out in the Daily Telegraph, the International Rugby Board has recently tightened the law on so-called spear tackles.
Curiously, Rolland chose not to consult the assistant referees (linesmen). The laws of rugby make provision for use of video replays for certain decisions but not currently for foul play unless it is in the in-goal area (see 6.A.6 (b) here).
In the end France just made it through to the final, winning 9-8. Wales had a kick which scraped the wrong side of the post and other chances which they weren’t quite able to take.
Alain Rolland’s entry on Wikipedia was rapidly hacked and may end up being locked to prevent further abuse. At the time of writing, the entry questions his neutrality, mentioning the fact that his father is French.
Inevitably, there has been widespread criticism of the referee on Twitter from the likes of former England player Jeremy Guscott and the disparaging remarks of former South African captain Francois Pienaar during the television commentary have also been tweeted.
The first minister of Wales Carwyn Jones said that he believed Rolland’s decision had been wrong and had “wrecked the game”.
Leaving aside the specifics of this incident, what should be done to reduce the risk of an incorrect decision by a referee changing the result of an important match?
The stakes are very high in international sport and there is intense pressure on match officials. Their authority is undermined when fans see in replays that a mistake has been made. It would seem reasonable for rugby referees to be required to use video replays for big decisions, or at the least to consult their assistants. This would reduce the pressure a little. Maybe even football will one day see through the weak arguments (in my opinion) against using video replays.
If today’s events lead to wider consultation by referees when making decisions then the misery felt both by Welsh fans and by Alain Rolland will not have been in vain.