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Scotland playing Wales is tough enough without them being aided and abetted by officials – Martin Hannan

THE great thing about having the midweek rugby column is that you get time to analyse weekend matches and digest what happened. It also means you have probably calmed down by the time you come to write the column, though I am still seething about one refereeing decision in particular in the Wales v Scotland Six Nations match which ended with a 20-17 loss for the men in blue, a “chuck away” as captain Stuart Hogg called it.   

It was bad enough for Scotland to have to go to Cardiff and play the wounded dragon, as I called them last week, but when you have to play a team aided and abetted by 16th and 17th men then you are really going to struggle.

The 16th man for Wales was referee Nic Berry while the 17th man (and women) was their vociferous support, and it was a combination of them in the 67th  minute which I believe cost Scotland the match.

I am referring to the knock on by Finn Russell which Berry eventually deemed a penalty and a yellow card. But here’s the rub – having viewed the incident at least 30 times, I am convinced the referee changed his mind amid pressure from the crowd. He also chose to ignore a rather large factor in the event.

Watch the replay and you’ll see and hear what happened:  after Dan Biggar’s penalty kick came back off the post and Scotland were penalised, the ‘advantaged’ ball made its way via Russell’s knock on to Alex Cuthbert who ‘scored’ in the corner.

Berry was heard to say to TMO Brett Cronan: “On-field decision is a try, we have got a grounding, we just need to check touch.

“If not, we are going to come back because I was playing advantage for a knock-on from blue.”

Cronan showed the video of Cuthbert’s foot in touch and said to Berry: “The player has clearly put his foot into touch. So you need to go back for your penalty.”

Berry replied: “It’s not a penalty mate, I just had it as a knock on. Do we need to have a look at it?”

Cronan said: “Sorry, we’ll check that now for you.”

As replay after replay was shown, the crowd could be heard booing, calling for the knock to be called deliberate and for Russell to be carded, with some saying red card.

I think Berry reacted to the crowd. Remember that Berry’s first two thoughts were that it was a knock on but NOT a penalty.

In all the many words of analysis about this incident that I have read, there is not one verdict which points out the close proximity of Dillon Lewis, the Welsh replacement prop in the No 18 jersey that scrum half Tomos Wlliams was passing to. At 6ft tall and 18st, Lewis is a pretty hard figure to miss, and his right hand was heading for Russell’s head when the Scot veered, causing him to knock on. There is actual contact between Lewis and Russell, but Berry ignored all that. He also ignored that Russell’s right hand was in a correct catching position.

The law states: “A player must not intentionally knock the ball forward with hand or arm.” The sanction for a deliberate knock on is a penalty.

However it adds: “It is not an intentional knock-on if, in the act of trying to catch the ball, the player knocks on provided that there was a reasonable expectation that the player could gain possession.”

Unlike England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie against Scotland the previous week, Russell was clearly trying to catch the ball and had a reasonable expectation of being able to do so, except for Lewis getting in the way.

There is a concept in Scots law called mens rea, which means that a criminal must intend to commit a crime. How could Berry possibly have known that Russell intended to knock on? The evidence shows otherwise.

The yellow card arguably cost Scotland the game.  Wales took advantage of Scotland’s numerical disadvantage to score a drop-goal through Dan Biggar and then hung on to win. With their best attacking threat and goal kicker off the pitch, Scotland just couldn’t get close enough to score.

The controversy highlights something I have been increasingly concerned about – referee-made law. Like many professional people, referees tend to go along with their colleagues and Berry has set the bar very low on knock-ons.

I believe players will now think twice before trying to intercept passes in case they are penalised and carded.  That’s a great shame because interceptions can be among the most exciting elements of a game which, after all, in the professional era is about entertainment.

The fact is that Scotland should have won but didn’t deserve to because too many players were below par, while Biggar and others spurred on Wales.

Yet again, however, refereeing decisions played too big a part in the match. I think they should be told to give players the benefit of the doubt unless it is absolutely clear that a player was reckless or obviously intended to break the laws.       

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