The Lions tour of South Africa has presented me with a new role as a TV pundit and I have to say I am really enjoying it.
What I didn’t want to do was go into it and pick holes in referees’ decisions or comment on their performances because I know how difficult a job it is, having been in that situation myself.
What I hope I am doing is explaining why a referee has given a decision, explaining what the law is.
But I am also not going to put my own reputation at risk by defending the indefensible.
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If I feel a different decision should have been reached, I will explain why.
If you look at the red card in the Australia-France game last Saturday, I can understand why, when all those angles were shown and the footage was paused on point of contact, the referee in that moment, in that pressure, made a decision.
But, to me, that was not a red card and that was the general consensus.
It wasn’t an illegal shoulder to the head, it was an attempted wrap tackle by the Wallaby wing Marika Koroibete.
The head of the French player went over Koroibete’s shoulder, rather than the tackler’s shoulder going into the neck.
The hearing this week has clarified that it shouldn’t have been a red card. But one thing I would have liked the citing officer to look at was the reaction of the French player.
It certainly looked to me like he was making a meal of it. We don’t want this to become the norm in rugby. It needs to be addressed before it becomes a problem.
So, in my punditry, I am looking to bring something different to it, so people can understand why decisions are made, bringing my own experience of reffing to bear.
I am no coaching expert, but you do get to understand a lot more than just refereeing over the years, in terms of how players and coaches approach the game, the strengths and weaknesses of players in high-profile, pressure matches and situations. So I hope I can bring that across.
I think it is important that people are educated on the game, particularly with the way social media is today and some of the comments you see on there.
So I explain things like why it wasn’t a try for Louis Rees-Zammit against South Africa A last week and why it should have been a yellow card for Koroibete in Australia-France, not a red card.
I wouldn’t be enjoying it if I was going there and criticising referees, but there will be times when refs get decisions wrong.
If they take offence when I explain that, then the issue is with them, not with me.
I have had ex-referees comment on my decisions in the past and I had no issue with that at all, as long as their views were in line with the directives we had to referee certain areas.
I had no issues if a referee or anyone for the matter would have given a different decision to me, as long as their reasons were valid and within law.
Rugby is a game full of grey areas, we must remember. I hope I help clear a lot of that up in commentary.
It’s good to be part of the Sky Sports team, along with the brilliant Sam Warburton, Will Greenwood and Conor McNamara. There is a chemistry between us, the same as when I do the Jonathan show, and I think that comes across.
The feedback I have had is that everybody is enjoying the mix. We do it from the studio in London and it’s working fine.
You have got the screens in front of you, you see everything clearly. It’s a bit different to being in the stand in Cape Town or there with crowds, but that’s the situation we are in.
Now, turning to the first Test between the Lions and the Springboks, the referee is the Australian Nic Berry. He’s a lovely guy and a hugely talented official.
I ran the touch for him in his first Six Nations game, which was France against Scotland out in Paris, which is a big match to do.
I was hugely impressed with him. He’s got a lovely way about him. He’s very quiet on and off the field. He just gets on with his job.
He’s a players’ referee and, probably from his background playing Super Rugby in Australia, he likes to have flow in his game. He likes to let the players get on with the game and let it flow, which is great to see.
This will be the biggest test of his career so far this weekend, his biggest challenge.
You can’t just go into it and let everything go and hope it’s going be a Super Rugby type of game.
It won’t be a case of sitting back and letting the two teams get on with it and play.
He will need to control things, especially in the first 10-20 minutes when it’s going to be absolutely full on. That’s when you need to stamp your authority on the game. It will be brutal.
It will be a case of him setting his standard in that period and then hopefully, when the players settle into everything, you can let the game breathe a little bit.
If you start a game and just let everything go, it’s impossible to pull things back into line if it’s needed. It’s all about getting the balance right.
So it’s going to be a massive challenge for him, a big test, but one he has the ability and talent to handle.
Hopefully he will come out of it having done a great job and that will kick him on into one of the top positions going into the 2023 World Cup.
There is a lot at stake for the refs in this series, with Ben O’Keeffe and Mathieu Raynal taking charge of the other two Tests.
You have got three hugely talented referees there, but pretty inexperienced at this level. None of them have refereed a knockout game in a World Cup yet.
Nothing of this magnitude yet.
When you look at it, there isn’t much experience around.
There is only Wayne Barnes, Jaco Peyper and Romain Poite. Wayne and Jaco are not available due to neutrality and Romain is out injured.
Those are your three experienced referees, with Pascal Gauzere having finished now.
The next group is pretty inexperienced when it comes to big occasions.
So the captains are going to have a hugely important part to play with the officials in this Lions Test series.
It will be crucial and that’s where Alun Wyn Jones has a vital role. He has the respect of the players around him and the respect of the officials. So it’s hugely important for the Lions to have him back at the helm.
Maybe Conor Murray showed his lack of experience as a captain in the South Africa A game during that period before half-time.
Sam Warburton, as a former skipper, pointed out he would have gone for a scrum on the goal-line against 13 men.
You need that experience in key games and that is what Alun Wyn has got. When you are refereeing with him, there is no nonsense on or off the field. He is very professional, does his job, gets on with it.
It’s just focus and determination. He very rarely has a bad game.
Everybody was gutted for him over that shoulder dislocation against Japan. It’s a credit to him how he has recovered from that so quickly. That’s his determination and professionalism, his attitude.
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You can only imagine the hard work he has put in over the last few weeks to get himself in this position.
Once he came through 20 minutes last weekend and tested his shoulder, to me there was no doubt he was going to be picked. I am not surprised one bit with that.
Good luck to him and his team now. It will be a fascinating game to watch – and comment upon.
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