I was doing some video and metal prep work this week and I stumbled upon the clip from last year's Vancouver Sevens Bowl Final. It was one of the best examples in contextual judgement I've seen a referee apply. Contextual judgement is what a mentor of mine said makes or breaks a referee in our game.
Going through games likes these serves as excellent mental "practice" for referees. Most of us are guilty of under-developing mental skills in our referee. Understanding all of the factors in a games context is a skill that must be practiced. These are the lessons in contextual judgement you can take away from watching the last seconds of this game.
#1 The big kickoff with less than a minute to play: with the empathy of knowing that Canada will throw up everything they have to gain possession, the referee uses body language to ensure no 'In front of kicker' problems. By making this visible (notice it's non-verbal, key element) he a)prevents potential infringement b)story-boards any potential decision he has to make if there is an infringement (taking the monkey off the referee's back)
#2 Time management: With 12 seconds to play, the referee is not clear on what the AR has communicated. His first action is to blow 'time off.' Lyndon Bray said "the best referees have time in their pocket." Not only does this referee blow 'time off,' he takes his time and space he needs to get the information he needs to decide on the correct outcome (in a concise fashion). Note: excellent decision from Michael Jones as knock-on comes off of Canada #1.
#3 Understanding who is under pressure: The sealing off decision which gave Canada possession is 100% right, but let's look at how the referee got this right. Knowing that France is under enormous pressure, the referee gets in a perfect 45 degree angle (relative to the contact area) position and sees a clear release from Red assist-tackler. He then makes a "gauging decision" of who is in position to win the breakdown. Seeing that Canada ball carrier falls short of where he wants to get to (that meter after contact so important in modern rugby), his focus is on the quality of the contest versus the quality of the cleanout. The France support arrives short and desperately places hands on ground to protect possession. If there was no opposition threat in the area code.. no problem. The Canada player however, arrives well in a position to win the ball. PK is perfect in the context of this picture. It's not the black and white here (or red and white in this case)... it's understanding who is under pressure and who deserves possession given the actions of both sides.
#4 Application of advantage (and timing of YC). The referee has the empathy and knows that Canada want to maintain possession and pressure at all costs. He must make sure the tackler/tackle-assist are clear, yet that Canada first arrivers on legal. The referee does not slow down the game to issue warnings and YCs at this point. Instead he manages the space around the fringes of the ruck as well as the 10m space after PK as well as he can. Yes, the last French infringement deserved a YC... the referee knows this... but he knows a try is also on. When the try is on let things play out. You can always award the try and give the YC if you need to afterwards. Most importantly, manage the space... if the quick tap is the best advantage, make sure the kick is fair (near the mark, AND NO YOU DON'T HAVE TO WALK TO THE MARK AND STAMP YOUR FOOT ON THE GROUND, IF THE PLAYERS ARE ON THE MARK WHERE THE PK SHOULD BE, PLAY ON!) and keep the relevant defender honest with presence and body language.
Ultimately, this referee's contextual judgement avoided things like YCs with no time left, penalty tries, angry defenders with arms raised and ultimately loss of a spectacle. At the end of the day we are there to allow the players to display their skills. This referee did his job. He empowered the players to contest the game fairly and that can be a goal for everyone regardless of the crowd size.