Accuracy and fairness should be prized above entertainment as rugby looks to win back the fans, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The poor standard of officiating – at Test and Super Rugby levels – is a major cause for concern. Referees are getting it wrong whether they are ruling on foul-play incidents or ‘lesser’ offences that tend to shape the flow and outcome of big contests.
Owen Farrell escaped sanction after shoulder-charging André Esterhuizen at Twickenham last November. The Springboks were denied a shot at goal that would have won them the game.
More recently, we saw Schalk Brits and Akker van der Merwe receiving red cards in the wake of an ill-tempered brawl at Kings Park. Replays showed Van der Merwe driving his head into his opposite number at the start of the fracas, yet referee Mike Fraser concluded that Brits had started the fight.
You couldn’t have scripted it better if you were writing a satire on the state of the game. On Saturday, Brits was shown a red card. For what? For receiving a Liverpool kiss.
Pote Human’s side would have had good cause to complain if they had lost. As it was, they won via a late Handré Pollard penalty.
The Bulls would have had good cause to query the decision to penalise Pollard in the first half. Again, the ruling was so outrageous it bordered on comical.
Pollard found himself at the bottom of a ruck. An enthusiastic Ruben van Heerden, keen to secure quick ball for the Sharks, charged in and his shoulder appeared to make contact with Pollard’s head.
Instead of showing the young lock a red card – a sanction that would have altered the course of the contest – Fraser penalised Pollard.
For what? Perhaps for getting his head in the way of Van Heerden’s shoulder.
Perhaps we should give Fraser and company credit for actually ruling on the incident. Down in Auckland, the officials completely missed a scrap that culminated with Stormers wing Dillyn Leyds copping an elbow to the face.
These are the decisions that top referees should be getting right 10 times out of 10, especially with all the technology at their disposal and two further officials watching from the touchline.
It’s not an encouraging sign in a World Cup year. Indeed, what sort of gaffe can we expect to dominate headlines following the big games at the global tournament in Japan?
Referees are getting the big decisions wrong. ‘Lesser’ offences are being missed or ignored and this is influencing games and results.
Imagine a scenario that sees the Springboks playing against the All Blacks in the World Cup final. The Boks are camped on the All Blacks 22m line. There are only five minutes left in the game. Siya Kolisi’s men take the ball through the phases, searching for a linebreak or even a penalty that will propel them into the lead.
The All Blacks defend as if their lives depend on it. They edge forward in one unbroken black line, slightly ahead of the last man’s feet. They rush forward knowing that the referee is unlikely to penalise them for being offside at such a decisive stage of the game.
They go off their feet at the ruck. They hold the ball-carrier for slightly longer than they would in the earlier stages of the contest.
They’ve done their homework. They know that referees rarely blow to the letter of the law in such a situation. They realise that the powers that be don’t want a tournament to be decided by a controversial referee decision.
This is not another rant about South Africans getting a raw deal when they are playing against New Zealand teams. Indeed, one could change it around, so that the All Blacks are attacking and the Boks are defending.
The scenario could play out in a similar manner – as it did when the teams met in Wellington last year. On that occasion, referee Nigel Owens would have been well within his rights to penalise the Boks for being offside.
No, this is about the way the game is officiated nowadays. This is about the lawbook leaving too much to interpretation and sacrificing fairness on the alter of entertainment.
This is about asking what the powers that be are doing to restore the integrity of the game.
World Rugby plans to trial several new laws in 2020. The game is losing fans at an alarming rate, especially in the southern hemisphere. World Rugby hopes that the proposed law changes will lead to a safer yet more exciting attacking contest in future.
Some of the proposed laws may well make for a better game. When one studies the list of changes, however, one wonders when World Rugby is going to eradicate referee interpretation at the ruck and tackle.
‘Marginally’ forward passes are ignored these days as referees look to limit stoppages. Critics like myself used to moan at length about the officiating at the breakdown, and how problematic it can be when a referee can pick and choose which laws he wants to police and enforce. The game has now degenerated to the point where ‘marginally’ forward passes are accepted as part of the spectacle. Call them out, and you’re denounced as a party-pooper.
The offside line is rarely enforced, even though referees have a mandate to encourage a free-flowing attacking contest. How many times did we see England, Ireland and Wales (the eventual champions) using their linespeed to shut down attacking teams in the Six Nations? How often did those defending players begin their charge from the last man’s feet?
How often are the Crusaders offside in the Super Rugby tournament? To be fair, the better teams are always going to push the boundaries as far as the man in the middle allows.
Ultimately, World Rugby wants a game that’s easier to sell. They want a fast-flowing contest and an increase in the number of tries scored.
Several of the proposals put forward are geared toward reducing the number of players in the defensive line and creating more space for the attack. One wonders why they haven’t looked at what’s hampering those attacking ambitions at present. The answer is staring them in the face.
Why not move the offside line back a couple of metres, so that defending teams have less of an opportunity to shut down attacking movements before they’ve begun? Why not enforce the 5m gap behind the scrum?
Send repeat offenders to the sin bin sooner rather than later. A stricter approach will force the defending side to start their rush from further back. If the defence does lose a man to the bin, the attacking side will have more space to exploit.
If World Rugby is serious about making changes for the good of the game, it should instruct referees to blow to the letter of the law and work towards a universal standard. A set of laws that leaves too much to interpretation is always going to hold the game back and provide ample reason for fans and critics to question its integrity.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images