Subjectivity killing the game

The inconsistencies in officiating continue to mar the Super 14 as a spectacle but the fact remains the ELVs leave too much to interpretation.

Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus bemoaned the fact after his side lost to the Blues two weeks ago. Obviously frustrated, he suggested his side needs to learn to adapt to the referee and how he calls the game, especially at the breakdown.

While it may seem ridiculous to make such a statement, Erasmus’s words hold some weight when you consider how varied the officiating has been in this area. The term free-for-all has been bandied about, and critics from all sectors have slated the new laws as they allow defending teams the opportunity to impede repeatedly as most of the time the sanction is only a free kick.

This is where the inconsistency comes into play. When does the contest for the ball at the tackle point become cynical and how many successive penalties does it take before a yellow card is brandished? There are no unequivocal answers to these questions. The referee is entrusted to call it like he sees it, and herein lies the big problem.

There’s been a lot of debate about how structures have taken over the game and how so few players are encouraged to play the situation. While most will agree coaches need to back their players to maximise creative potential, referees cannot be afforded the same leeway. The powers that be need to reconvene and give referees stricter guidelines. Three repeated infringements result in a penalty, and thereafter yellow cards come into play. This will result in less criticism of referees, and players will also be aware of what will lead to a long-arm penalty or a yellow card.

The laws are on a trial basis in the Super 14, but one wonders why these parameters were never considered when the laws were written. The breakdown has long been the most important area of the game, with rucks outnumbering the set-pieces by a vastly superior margin. It’s also arguably the hardest area to officiate.

Erasmus told SA Rugby magazine last year he believes a fourth official is needed to monitor the breakdown. Referees in his opinion currently have too much to worry about, and given the high potential for transgression at the breakdown an extra set of eyes would certainly clean things up. For example, Wikus van Heerden would never have shovelled that ball back with his hands in the ruck at the 2007 Super 14 final against the Sharks. The fourth official would have seen this transgression and awarded the penalty to the Sharks. As it was, Steve Walsh missed the move, the ball came back on the Bulls side and Bryan Habana ultimately scored the winning try.

The ELVs have been brought in to speed up the game, and it’s true it will take some time for everyone to adjust. But in a faster game, can referees really be asked to keep up with everything that happens? Some referees are better than others, and may well adapt, but the truth of the matter is you need a universal standard in operation at the highest level.

We are only going into Round 8, but the mistakes and differing interpretations of the Super 14 referees is alarming. Erasmus is not the only coach who has expressed his concern, with Blues mentor David Nucifora also speaking out recently at how the new laws allow for more negative play. Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske complained when the Force pipped his side thanks to a last gasp penalty in Round 2, a penalty he believes should have been a free-kick when Hendrik Meyer impeded at the ruck. The breakdown rules are under scrutiny, but the new tackle law is something that also needs stricter management with defending players often not getting back onside once a linebreak and subsequent tackle has been made.

Erasmus’s comments following the Blues match is worrying from the stand point that teams may need to take the referee into account when preparing for a particular game. That is not to say they don’t already, but the emphasis should always be on the opposition rather than the official.

By Jon Cardinelli