Warren Gatland faces a tough test in his first game in charge of Wales since returning as coach at the end of last year, as his side take on world number ones Ireland in Cardiff in the opening match of the 2023 Six Nations.
The man in the middle for the huge clash is Englishman Karl Dickson, a former player turned referee who has made the news in recent months following a number of high-profile incidents.
But who is Karl Dickson and what can Wales and Ireland expect from his officiating? We take a closer look:
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Who is Karl Dickson?
Born in Salisbury in 1982, Dickson started playing rugby at school and went through the Bedford Blues academy system before being promoted to the senior team in 2004. Playing as a scrum-half, he made over 100 appearances for the club before joining Harlequins in 2009.
Despite being being behind England scrum half Danny Care in the Quins pecking order, he made 169 appearances and was highly rated by those at the club, with Director of Rugby Conor O'Shea claiming he was "among the best five scrum halves in the country" at the time.
Dickson, who was also called up to England's 2012 Six Nations squad but never received a full international cap, announced his retirement from playing in April 2017 and hung up his boots at the end of the season.
The following month, he joined the RFU's match officials team, having begun his refereeing qualifications in 2014. He took charge of schools matches, as well as local and national league clubs before taking charge of A-League and Premiership games
He made his international debut when he took charge of Georgia v Samoa in 2018, before making his first Tier One appearance in a 2020 friendly between France and Wales. He was promoted to the Six Nations last year, once again officiating Le Bleus in their 36-17 win over Scotland.
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Why has Karl Dickson made headlines recently?
Dickson has found himself at the centre of some controversial moments involving English rugby's biggest stars in recent months. The referee made headlines in the lead up to the 2023 Six Nations after failing to review a serious incident involving England and Saracens captain Owen Farrell in his side's Premiership win over Gloucester in January.
Farrell led his team to a dramatic victory with a last gasp drop goal from just inside the opposition's half, but should have been dismissed moments earlier if not for a miscommunication between Dickson and his TMO.
With just minutes left of the game, the fly-half hit Gloucester's Jack Clement with a high tackle, before going down to receive treatment moments later. With play stopped, TMO Claire Hodnett told Dickson that she thought there had been foul play on Farrell's part, with the referee responding by asking if the incident was in “the same phase of play” as the passage which had just concluded, before adding: “If you’re not sure if it’s in the same phase of play, we can’t look at it.”
Hodnett replied that the tackle took place back on the Gloucester 22-metre line - play had stopped with Saracens defending a lineout 10 metres from their own line. Dickson again said that if Hodnett could not tell him if the incident occurred during the same phase of play, the game would have to play on. Hodnett replied “I can’t tell you definitely” and the game continued.
The decision led to furore among fans and pundits, with Dickson appearing to lay the blame at the TMO's door following the match. Farrell was later cited and handed a four week ban, although this was reduced to a three-week suspension by him completing the World Rugby Coaching Intervention Programme. Despite the ban, he is available for England's Calcutta Cup clash against Scotland.
The former Quins player-turned-referee has also been involved in controversy regarding his former team, failing to intervene in an unsavoury incident which saw Joe Marler twice call Bristol Bears flanker Jake Heenan's mum a "whore" in a match at the end of last year, while he also chose not to hand former team-mate Kyle Sinckler a yellow card for shouting "Are you f****** serious?" at him during Bristol's Premiership win over Exeter in 2021.
Who are the Wales v Ireland officials?
- Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU)
- Assistant Referee 1: Angus Gardner (RA)
- Assistant Referee 2: Luke Pearce (RFU)
- TMO: Tom Foley (RFU)
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