‘Challenge it’ – Kiwi rugby getting to grips with new captain’s referral system

NEW ZEALAND RUGBY is famous for leading the way and one of its latest tweaks – the captain’s referral – seems sure to be mimicked elsewhere in the sport.

The system is very similar to the coach’s challenge in American football and the captain’s challenge in rugby league.

The New Zealand Rugby version means each team has one opportunity per game to ask the referee and their television match official [TMO] to check for a possible infringement in the build-up to a try or to review potential foul play.

Captains have 10 seconds after a try has been scored to make their referral, with TMOs entitled to go all the way back to the last stoppage in play. Captains must refer to specific incidents or actions, although the scrum and lineout are not included in the referral process. Foul play referrals can be made after any stoppage in play.

If a captain is correct in their challenge, their team retains its referral to use again later in the game, but if they’re wrong, they no longer have a referral.

After the 75-minute mark in the game, captains are entitled to use their referral – as long as they still have one – to check any refereeing decision, so not just around possible tries or foul play. 

We saw examples of the captain’s referral in action in both Super Rugby Aotearoa games last weekend, first during the Highlanders’ 39-23 win over the Chiefs.

The Chiefs are attacking in the 77th minute when Highlanders out-half Josh Ioane complains about a leading elbow by Mitchell Brown, as we can see below.

Play continues as the Chiefs cross the tryline through wing Etene Nanai-Seturo, albeit after a potential knock-on from scrum-half Xavier Roe.

Referee Paul Williams calls time off as Highlanders captain Aaron Smith initially appeals for the knock-on.

As Smith is talking to Williams, we can see below that a member of the Highlanders’ medical team is interacting with Ioane, seemingly encouraging him to report the foul play to Smith for a captain’s referral.

Ioane immediately walks over to Smith to flag the incident to him…

… and Smith swiftly approaches Williams again.

“Can we check an elbow to the neck on Josh Ioane on the last carry, please, foul play,” says Smith to Williams, then turns back to Ioane and asks, “Who was it?”

Ioane answers and Smith tells Williams, “Mitch Brown.”

Williams responds, “Aaron, we’ve got your captain’s referral and that was within the 10 [seconds], so that’s fine.”

Interestingly, Chiefs captain Sam Cane then approaches and tells Williams, “We’ve got a referral before that,” although he doesn’t add any specifics.

Williams is already in the process of indicating the TMO review, however, and tells Cane, “just one second Sam.”

TMO Brendon Pickerill begins his review and Williams tells his two assistant referees that Cane’s referral “came outside the 10 [seconds]” as he underlines that they’ll examine the possible foul play by the Chiefs and then move to the possible knock-on if needs be.

The review of Brown’s leading elbow begins.

“For me, it’s hit him in the chest and then it’s slid up, so it hasn’t caught him directly in the neck, so therefore the mitigation for me is a penalty,” decides Williams, who then calls the two captains back in to explain the situation.

“We’ve got our first captain’s referral and it’s a successful one because there is foul play,” says Williams. “I get what you [Cane] are saying but he [Brown] has still led with an elbow, he’s hit him [Ioane] in the chest and slid up, so therefore it’s going to be a penalty.”

As Cane protests, Williams adds, “Unfortunately, your referral came outside the 10 seconds, back we go,” meaning we don’t find out what Cane wanted to refer.

Close review of the action that followed Brown’s leading elbow suggests that the Chiefs try may actually have stood, so it’s certainly a successful referral from the Highlanders even if it wasn’t decisive in the outcome of the game.

The following day, the Crusaders beat the Hurricanes 33-16 in a game that featured two captain’s referrals. 

The first came in the opening half after the Crusaders swept from deep inside their own half to dot down through out-half Richie Mo’unga. 

Jordie Barrett immediately turns to referee Ben O’Keeffe appealing that the final pass to Mo’unga was forward. 

Canes skipper Ardie Savea was in the sin bin at the time but their stand-in captain clearly follows up with a formal referral and O’Keeffe goes to his TMO. The referral is greeted with boos by the Crusaders fans.

Having reviewed Mitchell Drummond’s last pass, TMO Brendon Pickerill tells O’Keeffe, “Ben, the player [Drummond] has high momentum and it appears the ball has come backwards out of the hand, it is not clearly forward, therefore stay with the try.”

O’Keeffe adds, “So stick with the try and the Hurricanes have lost their referral now. So no referral for the rest of the match. Back to the conversion.”

This entire exchange is audible to the supporters at Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch, with Super Rugby Aotearoa allowing fans in the match venues to listen in to these conversations.

Interestingly, Savea later attempts another referral but is reminded by O’Keeffe that the Canes no longer have one after their unsuccessful attempt earlier.

The Crusaders use their referral in the second half of the game, this time for foul play. 

O’Keeffe has just awarded Savea a jackal turnover penalty following his tackle on Crusaders lock Sam Whitelock, who sits up and shouts over to his captain, Scott Barrett, “Challenge it” as he points at his face.

Barrett approaches O’Keeffe and says he wants to make the captain’s referral, with O’Keeffe asking for specifics.

“Shoulder to the head,” says Barrett, as Whitelock adds, “shoulder to the face.”

Savea tries to tell O’Keeffe that the Crusaders have already used their referral but he rejects that suggestion and goes to the TMO review: “The specifics of the captain’s referral is foul play, shoulder onto 5 Red at that last ruck, please.”

As images of Savea’s tackle are shown, O’Keeffe voices his opinion, “For me, initially looking at that, I don’t see any foul play. He’s just bracing. You guys agree?”

Savea is already on a yellow card from the first half, but he is spared a second.

“I’ve got a decision,” says O’Keeffe. “For me, there’s no dangerous foul play involved in that. The guy [Savea] is passive, he’s just making a tackle, the Crusader [Whitelock] drops low, comes into the tackle. I don’t see any dangerous foul play.

“So Crusaders lose their referral, we continue with the onfield penalty.”

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Whitelock is clearly in disagreement as the Hurricanes kick their penalty into the left corner.

While this final referral very surprisingly went against the Crusaders, we’re sure to see plenty more of them in the coming weeks and months.

Other unions and competitions will be watching on with interest.