Rugby will be stuck in the boondocks until refs get a grip
No penalty for Farrell’s lawless tackle was not the first time officials have produced a jaw-dropping clanger
World Rugby, the organisation that oversees the sport, is quick to trumpet rugby’s status as a “global” game that is growing, yet glacially slow to highlight its Achilles heel – the laws and their application.
But the stark reality is that admission to the Olympic Games via sevens rugby does not make the sport more appealing to a mass audience.
Until World Rugby unscrambles its law book and opaque refereeing decisions the sport will continue to slowly wither.
After last Saturday’s appalling display by Australia’s Angus Gardner, who showed no backbone when not awarding the Springboks a penalty for what was a blatant tackle without arms (shoulder charge), World Rugby has remained stonily silent. And will remain that way.
The Boks didn’t lose the game because of Gardner’s call, because they had already inflicted enough damage on themselves over the previous 81 minutes to chuck it away. But they were denied a legitimate chance to win the match. Only an officiating howler of Eben Etzebeth-bicep-sized proportions denied the Boks that chance. How Gardner and his colleagues came to the conclusion that Owen Farrell’s assault on Andre Esterhuizen was anything other than a penalty, borders on criminal. But it is not the first time officials have produced such a jaw-dropping clanger that all hope for the sport ever rising above an amateur pastime seems impossible.
The only consistency in rugby officiating is its supreme inconsistency. Its law book (which is separate to “Regulations” that govern the sport) runs to 146 pages and leaves many of the rules open to referees’ interpretation.
The law in question from last Saturday is not definitive – there is no specific mention of the “shoulder charging”. Law 9-16 states: “A player must not charge or knock down an opponent carrying the ball without attempting to grasp that player.” What is the definition of “grasp”? For Gardner it was clearly different to 95% of people watching.
It’s inevitable, in a dynamic game played at high speed with massive collisions and rapid movement, that officials are sometimes going to get it wrong. But where there is a review via the television match official, and multiple camera angles, there is no excuse for making mistakes. The right decision has to be reached under those circumstances.
How Gardner could see anything other than a player knocking another down without “attempting to use his arms” is a mystery. Just one of many that plague the game.
Another layer of complexity is the stage of the game when these contentious issues occur. Former Ireland and British & Irish Lions great Brian O’Driscoll took to Twitter to suggest that because the match was in its final play, it was okay for the referee to cop out.
“The issue for me was a wrapped arm,” O’Driscoll wrote. “It’s a tight call but I felt there was something there not to decide a Test match on. And for those saying is it a penalty in the first 20 (minutes) has no relevance because the game is reffed differently when the clock goes red!”
So here is man with over 100 Test caps telling us that the game is reffed differently at the end compared to the beginning. As mitigation for the officials, it was appalling.
At what time in a match does this arbitrary cutoff point, when the laws cease to be applied by referees, come into existence? Or does it vary depending on the teams and venue? In which case it brings into question the entire integrity of the process.
No, rugby is shooting itself in the foot because new markets in the US and China are not going to take to a sport where laws are applied on a whim and because of circumstance.