Lessons from gridiron

Rugby needs to follow American football's lead and ensure refereeing subjectivity is kept to a minimum, writes JON CARDINELLI.

This Sunday, New England will play Seattle in the 49th installment of the Super Bowl. By the end of full time, there will be a winner and a loser.

The coaches and players in the former camp will know the result is down to their own superior showing. The defeated contingent will have nobody to blame, least of all the officials, but themselves.

This is how professional sport operates. The coaches and players are responsible for the flow of the game and ultimately the result, not the officials. If the officials do anything to upset or compromise this natural order, they are penalised and punished accordingly.

The NFL cannot afford the luxury of subjective officials, as there is simply too much at stake. Each franchise spends a great deal of time and money in the pre-season. There's a lot of effort that goes into a campaign  spanning several months. The goal is a championship and all the financial rewards that come with it. The team's performance will determine whether those goals are reached, not an official who is encouraged to interpret the rules as he sees fit.

In the NFL, the rules are set in stone. Every step of the way, a certain standard of officiating has to be maintained to ensure no team is cheated. There are as many as seven officials studying every scrimmage for transgressions and foul play. When something is missed, or if there is a tight call, the coaches have the option of asking for a TV replay. At the end of each season, every decision of every official is scrutinised by an independent panel.

Some rugby authorities will say great strides have been made to ensure the right decision is made more often than not. This despite the fact the current laws give one official the power to dictate the flow of the game (at the tackle and ruck). Teams are thus forced to prepare for a particular referee's game management style as much as the opposition.

Many referees are still getting the 'big' decisions wrong. The 2014 season was one of the worst with regards to the high number of unwarranted yellow cards and penalties. This can't be good for the game.

But even more disappointing than that was the tendency of some referees to use the big screens at rugby grounds to make game-shaping decisions. Local TV producers ran incriminating replays on the big screen in order to incite the local crowd and ultimately manipulate the referee to act on a transgression. While technology can play an important role in professional sport, it cannot be acceptable that important images are relayed by a biased party, and it cannot be acceptable that top referees use them.

Rugby has a long way to go as a professional sport. The sooner the powers that be realise a subjective application of the laws is counter-productive, the sooner the code will gain acceptance as a professional entity.

The laws of rugby need to be made simpler so that there is no room for official subjectivity. If one, two, or even three more officials need to be introduced to ensure accuracy, then so be it. It's high time the integrity and credibility of the game was put first. This idea that rugby needs a referee to play a role in the spectacle has to be binned.

There will be more howlers in the coming Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, and inevitably more complaints from coaches and players about the inconsistency of the officiating. Investors and stakeholders will be hoping these gaffes are not the sole reason why they don’t receive a decent return. Fans will be hoping the subjectivity doesn't cost their team a campaign-defining result, or even a title. And that's the real problem: when the laws allow for too much interpretation and the referee has too much power, a rugby game is no longer a battle between two teams.

Traditionally, the IRB (now World Rugby) will make changes or adjustments to the laws in the year after a World Cup. One would hope there are significant alterations in 2016.

If the authorities are short on ideas, they would do well to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday. The officiating system keeps the margin for error to an absolute minimum, and so the coaches and players dictate the flow of game. It's the kind of system rugby desperately needs.

Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Post by

Jon Cardinelli