Why England's scrum was penalised against South Africa after losing battle for referee's heart and mind

Why England's scrum was penalised against South Africa after losing battle for referee's heart and mind

Perception is nine tenths of the law when it comes to scrummaging.

The scrum penalty that undid England’s Rugby World Cup campaign proved again the influence of trends on refereeing decisions.

Ellis Genge was penalised at a scrum with two minutes to play of Saturday’s semi-final and Handre Pollard booted the long-range goal, meaning the Springboks edged home 16-15.

England believed Vincent Koch had angled in, driving illegally, but South Africa were the ones rewarded.

Referee Ben O’Keeffe has come in for strong criticism in some quarters, but the Kiwi official will be reasonably satisfied with his decision.

England were ultimately beaten by the Boks in the scrum (AFP via Getty Images)
England were ultimately beaten by the Boks in the scrum (AFP via Getty Images)

The difficulty of scrummaging remains that England probably had a point about Koch’s angle. But the Red Rose men were not square or stable either.

O’Keefe could well have opted for a reset and demand the players be steady before allowing Faf De Klerk to feed the ball. But officials are under so much pressure to keep games moving that resets are not in the forefront of their minds.

England had conceded three scrum penalties in succession before the pivotal call, and on such directions of travel do matches swing.

In so many situations in rugby there is more than one transgression, and referees can only act on what they see. The complexity of the laws of the game leave it nigh-on impossible to be judged without any level of subjectivity.

The reality is that had England not been the team leaking penalties previously, then they may well have avoided censure.

This is exactly why coaches and players talk so frequently about “showing good pictures” to referees.

What they mean is that they want to highlight all their legal work, so that the officials will be mindful of the positives when making pivotal decisions.

England opted not to comment on the refereeing call at the end, and in credit to boss Steve Borthwick he never passes judgement on match officials. The Red Rose head coach is determined to respect the referees and the at times impossible job they face.

The shrewd approach has already paid dividend as England are now viewed in a far more positive light by match officials than in times past.

England’s scrum was in a desperate place at the end of the Eddie Jones era, but first Richard Cockerill in the Six Nations and now Tom Harrison have entirely overhauled the set-piece.

Scrum coach Harrison has spoken openly and clearly across the World Cup on England’s quest for stability when the scrum is set, in order to wait patiently for a proper scrummaging contest.

The Red Rose men have not chased penalties in France and that paid of all handsomely.

Joe Marler and Dan Cole scrummaged fantastically well against the Boks, but Genge just could not contain Koch and Kyle Sinckler also struggled with Ox Nche.

There is zero shame in being unable to blunt some of the world’s deadliest scrummagers.

England did not lose the World Cup semi-final because of one decision, and the Red Rose men will accept that but will not dwell on it either.