Super Rugby Pacific referee review: Ben O’Keeffe’s trio of head-scratchers

ANALYSIS: It was an interesting return to action for top whistler Ben O’Keeffe on Friday night.

Back in charge for the first time since Six Nations duty last month, the reigning New Zealand Rugby Referee of the Year made several contentious calls in Friday night’s round-four Super Rugby Pacific match between the Blues and Highlanders in Albany, won 32-20 by the hosts.

The Highlanders felt aggrieved with one particular decision, but not the one they probably should have, while the Blues can look back on a try that could actually have been awarded.

Ben O'Keeffe talks with Highlanders captain Aaron Smith during his side's Super Rugby Pacific loss to the Blues at North Harbor Stadium on Friday night.

Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Ben O’Keeffe talks with Highlanders captain Aaron Smith during his side’s Super Rugby Pacific loss to the Blues at North Harbor Stadium on Friday night.

Here’s O’Keeffe’s trio of head scratchers:

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Fair to say Caleb Clarke won’t be getting an acting contract anytime soon, or be much chop behind the stumps on a cricket field. The Blues winger is perhaps too honest for his own good.

in the eighth minute it looked for all money like the five-test All Black was going to coast over the tryline to open the scoring, before the ball spilled out of his grasp and a knock on was ruled.

Caleb Clarke had the ball fall from his grasp with the line begging, but it appeared to come off Aaron Smith's hand.

Brett Phibbs/Photosport

Caleb Clarke had the ball fall from his grasp with the line begging, but it appeared to come off Aaron Smith’s hand.

It was the valiant covering effort of Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith that just did enough to put off the big No 11, who was visibly livid with himself for blowing the golden chance.

But, on reflection, had Clarke, who went through and dived on the ball in the in-goal, actually appealed for O’Keeffe to ask the TMO for a look, he may just have got his side five points.

That is because it seems it was in fact Smith’s hand which dislodged the ball.

There may be a misconception that referees rule on whether the attacking player had a ‘loose carry’. But they don’t.

This is covered in World Rugby’s law book under Law 11.5 (b): The ball is not knocked on, and play continues, if: A player rips or knocks the ball from an opponent and the ball goes forward from the opponent’s hand or arm


Blues skipper Dalton Papalii is pretty new to the captaincy gig. It’s not usually him telling the ref what the team will do at a penalty kick.

And somehow he got away with one big time in the 48th minute when O’Keeffe seemingly let him off the hook.

Blues captain Dalton Papalii got away with one when his side weren't made to take their shot at goal.

Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Blues captain Dalton Papalii got away with one when his side weren’t made to take their shot at goal.

Trailing 13-10, the home side were awarded a penalty close to the tryline and you could hear O’Keeffe confirm with the Blues that they were going to kick for goal. In explaining to Smith the reason for his penalty, O’Keeffe also mentioned, “They’re going to take a shot.”

But a few seconds later, after Papalii approached him, O’Keeffe all of a sudden informed the Highlanders that was in fact not the case – “They didn’t say shot, I got that wrong,” he said.

The slow motion replay soon after, though, clearly showed Papalii looking at O’Keeffe and gesturing towards the goalposts with his finger, with his lips appearing to say “posts”.

Under Law 8.19: The kicking team must indicate their intention to kick for goal without delayand Law 8.20: If the team indicates to the referee the intention to kick for goal, they must kick at goal. The intention to kick can be communicated to the referee or signalled by the arrival of the kicking tee.

Papalii either got a message from the sideline to alter his call, or had a change of heart himself, but whatever the case, the Blues shouldn’t have been allowed to kick for touch instead of at goal.

In the end they didn’t score from the ensuing lineout, though it kind of still led to their try soon after (see below).


Perhaps the greyest law of them all, with no definitive ruling about how long play should go on for following a knock on or penalty infringement.

And the Highlanders found out the hard way, after conceding a 49th minute try they felt shouldn’t have stood.

Taine Plumtree goes over for his second try on the back of Scott Gregory's awful clearance.

Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Taine Plumtree goes over for his second try on the back of Scott Gregory’s awful clearance.

Soon after the lineout referred to above, the Blues’ Bryce Heem knocked on near the tryline and the Highlanders’ Shannon Frizell scooped up possession and made a few meters. With easy ruck ball, Smith delivered deep for Scott Gregory in the in-goal, who, despite a slight juggle, still had plenty of time to make a clearance.

Problem was, his kick was badly sliced ​​down the middle of the park. The Blues needed no second invitation to dish out punishment by way of flanker Taine Plumtree going over for his double.

Smith was said to be livid with O’Keeffe for allowing play to continue following Gregory’s kick, but it appears the man in the middle was on the money in calling advantage over just after it left the centre’s boot.

Law 7.1 states: Advantage:

(a) May be tactical. The non-offending team is free to play the ball as they wish.

(b) May be territorial. Play has moved towards the offending team’s dead-ball line.

(c) May be a combination of tactical and territorial.

(d) Must be clear and real. A more opportunity to gain an advantage is not sufficient.

This, though, takes in both knock on and penalty advantages, where the former is shorter than the latter as, of course, no-one wants to see scrum after scrum being packed.

so, stuff, is reliably informed, the interpretation among officials is that (a) and (b) are used for knock on or free kick advantages, with (c) for penalty advantages.

Additionally, if a kicker is not deemed to be under pressure, then that is understood to be sufficient for a knock on advantage to end. Just because they shank their kick should not be reason for a scrum to be packed.

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