French referees can give England World Cup edge over Wales and Australia

Jérôme Garcès and Romain Poite are both strict controllers of the scrum and that could play into the hosts’ hands in their two crucial group matches

It may be the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo but England will not be overly concerned that their two most significant World Cup group matches, against Australia and Wales, are being controlled by Frenchmen.

Jérôme Garcès, as he did in the Six Nations at the Millennium Stadium – when the home side took exception after an unexpected defeat to some of his law interpretations, especially at the scrum – will take charge of the match against Wales at Twickenham, while Romain Poite will control the game against Australia.

Poite was the referee when England last lost to Australia, at Twickenham in 2012, but was in charge of the series-deciding third Test between the Lions and Australia in Sydney when he had a zero tolerance policy to the Wallaby front row bending the rules at the scrum, reaching for his yellow card after 24 minutes.

Alex Corbisiero was the Lions’ loose-head prop that evening and it was his immediate dominance of the Australia tight-head Ben Alexander that Poite rewarded. “He penalises players who infringe,” says the Northampton prop, who had his own issues with referees in the second half of last season, a problem that helped keep him out of England’s match-day squads in the Six Nations. “You know where you stand with him and where he draws the line, something you have to use to your advantage.”

England have won their last two matches when Poite has been in charge, against Scotland and Wales in the Six Nations, and their record under Stuart Lancaster when Garcès has been officiating is five victories in six, the exception being the third Test defeat in New Zealand last year. Like Poite, he is hard on props who do not stay straight after the front rows engage and the pair have controlled three of England’s last six Tests.

“I imagine that referees talk to each other about players,” says Corbisiero, speaking at the launch of England’s new Canterbury jersey. “They know what they are looking for and we have to fit the mould and paint the right picture for them. It was frustrating when we got on the wrong side of referees [in the front row] at Northampton last season. I pride myself on getting my technique as spotless as possible and we are looking to nail down all the details in the England camp now.”

Corbisiero has not started a Test for England since the victory over New Zealand in December 2012. His only cap since then came against Argentina from the bench the following year as a succession of injuries ruled him out. When he finally had an extended run of matches for Northampton last season, he was unable to force his way ahead of Joe Marler or Mako Vunipola.

“That is a tough question,” he says when asked if he felt the fault referees kept finding with his scrummaging technique cost him caps. “You will have to ask it to the England coaches. I focus on what I can control. It has been a frustrating few years for me but I am now fit and healthy. I feel I can get back to the form I showed with the Lions. I am back on course after some setbacks and I am in a position to give myself a shot at what I want to achieve and hit the heights.”

The 20th anniversary of the professionalisation of rugby union falls next month. The sport has changed markedly at the top level with the ball-in-play time virtually doubling and it has taken a physical toll on players, as Corbisiero well knows. A year ago, he called on the authorities to do more to tackle the issue of concussion, describing the protocols governing it as laughable.

“Big improvements have been made and awareness has definitely skyrocketed,” he says. “That is important because it’s a very serious issue. I think the culture change in rugby is definitely on the way in that people are understanding concussion more and respecting it more. There is not that ‘tough it up, ride it out’ mentality any more and people are a lot more aware. There are still more steps to take but there have been a number of positive advances in the last year.

“One area that needs to be looked at is the number of games international players play. It is one of the realities of the game, but is it sustainable in the long term? We are now in training for the World Cup and the season will effectively last until the end of June when England tour Australia. I am sure that in time more will be done to manage the load for Test players but at the moment if you want to play for your country you take what you can get. Every decision in life has a risk-to-reward factor and I hope that going forward the reward far outweighs the risk.

“Players are getting bigger and so are the hits, intensity and speed. Rugby is still in its infancy as a professional sport and continues to evolve. England have a good balance of skill, fitness, strength and conditioning. They are very aware of the requirements needed to tackle a competition like the World Cup. I feel privileged to play at this level and hope to get more opportunities to do so.”

Alex Corbisiero was speaking at the launch of the England Rugby World Cup shirt. Visit


Paul Rees

The GuardianTramp

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