Too many fickle fingers are ruining the game of rugby
Match officials, and the laws they are supposed to apply, are in urgent need of revision to restore credibility
The warning lights have flickered for some time but the November Tests in the northern hemisphere have forcefully driven home the point that rugby needs to clean up its act.
The game’s increasing brutality is exacting a high physical toll while match officials, and the laws they are supposed to apply, are in urgent need of revision if rugby’s credibility is to remain intact.
Too often, not just in the November Test window, the result of matches is decided by the whims of match officials who among themselves may have an opposing view of what they have just witnessed.
England’s Tests against SA and New Zealand yielded different results but in both cases the officials played a significant role in the outcome. The Wallabies’ recent Tests against Wales and Italy were also marred by controversial incidents, although that didn’t affect the results.
What is clear is that protocols around the use of assistant referees and the television match official (TMO) need to be standardised across the hemispheres.
As of this month the referee was restored as the chief arbiter, but that came with the caveat that too many misdemeanours, minor infractions, or sheer acts of thuggery will fall through the cracks as the TMO takes a backseat.
The reason for putting the referee front and centre again is a response to the seemingly unnecessary number of stoppages that occurred when the TMO took a more interventionist role.
With in-goal decisions, for instance, the referee is supposed to make a firm decision and then ask the TMO to advise him on specific elements of the buildup and conclusion of the move.
The periodic tweaking of the protocols about how the game is officiated may cause irritation, but it is understandable given how fluid the rugby became.
The speed and intensity at which the game is played often reduces the action to a blur, especially for those closest to the action. Despite the fact that the game is being policed by four active individuals, errors will still occur.
Even though player safety is said to be paramount, players are now at greater risk than they’ve ever been. The game is coached in such a way that players are obliged to routinely thud into each other at breakneck speed. Sheer blunt force is the preferred option in prising open the opposition’s defence.
Even the laws around foul play are opaque in their application. Ball carriers who go to ground following contact around or above their shoulders have the laws stacked heavily in their favour. However, think about the number of occasions when the tackler can feel hard done by when sanctioned following seemingly innocuous contact.
So too when the ball is in aerial dispute. The book is thrown at the chasing team’s jumper when the defending player is impeded in the air. With the law stacked so heavily in the defending team’s favour a fair contest, a basic tenet of the game, is compromised. Maybe lawmakers should rule that the defending team should be allowed to gather the ball uncontested, which should at least curtail the aimless box kicking that has started to blight the game.
What complicates things further for match officials are laws left open to interpretation. At the average ruck, one man’s “player holding on” is another’s “no clear tackler release”. Even something as seemingly basic as the offside line has become blurred.
The problem the lawmakers face is if they were to clean up the ruck and tackle area they need to introduce more penalisable offences. That in turn will mean more stoppages in a game already accused of being over-legislated.
More simplified laws should however remain lawmakers’ ultimate objective.
That the game’s governing body has a lot on its plate a year out from the Rugby World Cup becomes clearer when you consider that we haven’t yet mentioned the nefarious world of citing and its related protocols.