RFU ‘sorry’ for sin-bin chaos at Harlequins amid Bath fury – but match won’t be replayed

Irne Herbst/RFU 'sorry' for sin bin chaos at Harlequins amid Bath fury – but match won't be replayed
Irne Herbst had a curtailed time in the sin bin during Harlequins' nail-biting win over Bath - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

The Rugby Football Union has apologised “to both teams” for an officiating error which saw Irné Herbst serve just seven minutes in the sin bin during Harlequins’ thrilling win over Bath, with the governing body insisting the match result will stand.

Telegraph Sport revealed on Saturday how a furious Bath were set to lodge an official complaint and demand an explanation from both the RFU and Premiership Rugby after the Harlequins player was allowed to return at a key moment in the match. At that moment the West Country club were in the ascendancy and the South African lock hadn’t spent the full 10 minutes on the sideline for his cynical offence.

Telegraph Sport understands the controversy stemmed from a time-keeping error by fourth official Charlie Gayther and that there was no pressure from Harlequins to have Herbst return sooner than permitted. At the time of the lock’s reintroduction, the hosts had also just had wing Louis Lynagh sent to the sin bin.

Herbst was shown a yellow card in the 64th minute...
Herbst was shown a yellow card in the 64th minute... - TNT Sports
The South African lock enjoys a drink while serving his time in the sin bin...
The South African lock enjoys a drink while serving his time in the sin bin... - TNT Sports
Irne Herbst on the pitch for Harlequins
...but rather than spend the full 10 minutes on the sidelines Herbst is back on the pitch and in the middle of the action after just seven - TNT Sports

Both the RFU and Premiership Rugby refused to comment on Saturday night but the English governing body publicly apologised to both Harlequins and Bath for the mistake on Sunday, absolving the hosts of guilt despite them technically playing three minutes of the match with an extra player.

“The RFU Professional Game Match Officials Team (PGMOT) acknowledge and apologise for an error during the Gallagher Premiership match between Harlequins v Bath where a yellow card sanction resulted in Irné Herbst returning to the pitch approximately three minutes too soon,” read an RFU statement.

“We would like to apologise to both teams for this mistake. As is the usual process the PGMOT will review all games to ensure continued improvement and learnings.

“The result of the match remains final.”

Herbst was yellow-carded after 63 minutes and 52 seconds of what turned into one of the matches of the season, but the lock should have been off the field for 10 minutes. Television pictures showed him returning to the action after 70 minutes and 51 seconds – a full three minutes early.

At the time of Herbst’s reintroduction, Johann van Graan, Bath’s head coach, remonstrated with the fourth official to highlight the mistake and asked for the game to be stopped, with referee Anthony Woodthorpe completely unaware of the situation.

Herbst then made a tackle and cleared out a ruck after 71 minutes and 58 seconds as Quins held on in the face of a ferocious Bath comeback from 40-3 down early in the second half, with the West Country club departing with two losing bonus points and the hosts securing a full five-point victory thanks to the 40-36 scoreline.

Crisis looms with refs under greater scrutiny than ever

The RFU apology comes after an already torrid week for its officials. In the previous Premiership round, audio was accidentally broadcast in which television match official Stuart Terheege appeared to not review an act of foul play against Saracens captain Owen Farrell because it had been highlighted by TV commentary. Terheege later admitted he had been “disappointed that he allowed himself to be distracted with interactions with the broadcast team and did not communicate his decision to the on-field match officials.”

Although isolated incidents, both controversies have shone a negative spotlight on English rugby’s officialdom at a time when those applying the laws are under greater scrutiny than ever. Four top-class referees have stepped away from the international game in the past six months – two citing death threats among myriad of reasons why – and routine, elementary errors at club level will do little to win over a public which is already struggling to keep up with rugby’s mountain of law variations, tweaks and interpretations.

In its statement, the RFU highlighted that it will follow the “usual review process” but one must ask whether such a procedure is fit for purpose when such high-profile incidents continue to occur. The past fortnight might just be a case of unfortunate timing, but should the Premiership experience another officiating controversy before the end of the season, a crisis could be on the horizon. It remains to be seen how Bath react to the statement, too, given their fury on Saturday night and given the stakes in what is shaping up to be the tightest Premiership run-in of all time.