Protected species

MARK KEOHANE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says referees must stop interpreting the laws and start applying them consistently.

World Cup-winning Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer consistently condemned players and referees for having no regard for the application of the law at the breakdown, and while he felt there was improvement in 2010 after referees were instructed to effectively police the breakdown, he questioned why it took intervention and a directive from the game’s ruling body to ensure that referees did their job and called play as it unfolded.

Referees, desperate to officiate a game with flow, tempo and greater spectator appeal, use too much discretion with one man’s interpretation more damning and defining than the collective of the lawmakers.

Referees see themselves as managers of a game and some spend the game coaching in the guise of effective communication. They do this at the expense of applying the law but the defence (among referees) is the public wants to see a spectacle and not a stop-start bore.

Those defenders of referees blame players for a disregard for the laws and coaches for teaching their players to cheat and manipulate referees. But if the law was applied more consistently and if referees called what they saw instead of what they interpreted, there would be less controversy and a great deal more consistency.

The tackle area and scrum engage are two areas of the game that give away too much for referee interpretation and while the ‘crouch, touch, pause, engage’ at scrum time was designed for player safety, it has turned scrumming into a lottery depending on who is refereeing.

Dwyer called the scrum a mess and former England hooker Brian Moore, in the Daily Telegraph, lamented the lost art of scrumming, describing the modern day first-phase battle as a combination of players pushing against each other and poor refereeing.

‘The scrums are less stable and less safe, thereby exacerbating one of the very problems that the IRB seeks to remove. The referees’ unilateral, unexplained and unapologetic decision to allow the ball to be put in squint has created an unholy trinity of evils from which the present dangerous, boring farce ensues,’ wrote Moore, adding that the laws of the game were clear and needed to be applied and not interpreted.

Moore concluded that if the binding was legal, if neither team was allowed to push early or at the angle, and the ball was fed along the line of the join of the props’ shoulders, then there would be a fair and competitive scrum that remained aloft.

World Cup-winning Wallabies prop Andrew Blades supports Dwyer’s view that the scrum was a shambles, arguing that referees differed in variation with their timing of the engage call and in some cases it appeared as if the referee was trying to trick the teams on the engage by calling the engage too slow.

Blades offered the solution that takes away interpretation and uncertainty.

‘The referee checks that both sides are ready and then he should do a quick “crouch, touch, pause, engage”, with consistent timing. Referees also need to be harder on props with a hand on the ground, loose forwards not staying attached to the scrum and scrumhalves interfering with opposition players while the ball is still in the scrum.’

Blades said that if referees were more consistent in applying the laws of the game the scrum would be safer, hassle-free and represent a contest that would influence the game positively.

But interpretation is so strong among referees and views are so different that trying to find the consistency is impossible. Preparing for the referee on match day has become as much a science for technically astute coaches as is preparing for the opposition; because referee interpretations of the laws of the game vary so radically.

The emphasis on what is a no-go area in a game is also significantly different with each referee and the approach of a well coached and prepared team these days is as much influenced by the referee appointment for the game as it is by the quality of the opposition.

Those coaches who assume referees merely apply the laws of the game are ignorant. I would say naive but if you coach professionally then a failure to study the strengths and weaknesses of the man with the whistle is more ignorance than naivety.

Referees are the untouchables in rugby union, where an amateur ethos wrongly rules a professional environment.

There is no accountability because it is difficult to punish interpretation as its very nature is subjective and does not accommodate right and wrong.

Coaches and players cannot question a referee’s officiating publicly and when done through the official channels (by way of a post-match report) the response is lame and in favour of the referee – as dictated to by the ethos of a species, so often under attack, that one protects the other.

Referees, as it was during amateurism, are the sole judge and jury and those who play and coach the game simply have to tolerate the unintentional prejudice of a referee, who selectively applies the laws of the game to the way he believes the game should be played.

An analysis of the leading referees shows few see it the same way and most have an area of focus that is not consistent with the next one.

The game’s top 20 referees in 2010 – on average – awarded 20 penalties a game, which indicates consistency and allows for a belief that the laws of the game are obvious, well policed and not up to referee interpretation.

Closer analysis tells another story.

The scrum, like the breakdown, is one of the most contentious areas because too much is about referee interpretation. Some referees blew up to 14 scrum penalty infringements and others did not award a single scrum penalty.

France’s Jerome Garces, for example, awarded 24 penalties in a match and 29% of them were because of supposed scrum infringements. Steve Walsh, by contrast, in awarding 20 penalties, only singled out the scrum in 10% of the penalties. England’s Dave Pearson was even more tolerant at the scrum with an average of 8% of his penalties directed at scrum offenders.

South Africa’s Craig Joubert and Jonathan Kaplan, England’s Wayne Barnes and Ireland’s Alain Rolland and Alan Lewis, penalised the scrum in 15% of their penalties. But South African Mark Lawrence, in his two internationals, found little wrong with the scrum engagement and used it primarily as a restart, with just 3% of his penalties awarded at the scrum. South African Marius Jonker is the opposite to Lawrence and 25% of his penalties come at scrum time, and even more pertinent is that Jonker only penalises the loosehead or tighthead on the side he is standing.

Kiwi Bryce Lawrence, in officiating matches involving South Africa and Ireland, averaged five scrum penalties a game. Wales’ Nigel Owens, with the same teams, blew only a single scrum penalty. Rolland, in three Tests involving South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, not once penalised any of the three teams’ tighthead props. Other referees were not as accommodating.

Those desperate to defend referees will argue match circumstance and playing conditions differ, but extended analysis over a season shows a trend of inconsistency between referees in the way the game is managed and the laws are applied.

Detailed analysis of Super 14, Six Nations, Tri-Nations and end-of-year tour matches in 2010 showed referees awarded penalties for 51 different reasons, but the most alarming statistic for any player and coach is that one referee ruled on just 18 of the possible 51 offending actions (see sidebar below) and another policed 47 of them.

Another point of dispute among coaches is that so many referees in 2010 favoured the team with the ball, with the majority of penalties conceded by the defending team.

Those coaches interviewed identified matches when their support players infringed at the breakdown but because they had the ball they escaped censure. In other games the roles were reversed because of a different referee’s interpretation.

It made for a lottery, said coaches, and while no coach in discussion ever implied or claimed that a referee cheated or deliberately favoured one side, it was the battle to counter preconceived ideas among officialdom’s individuals, rather than any collective, that made it difficult to prepare a team according to the laws.

Some referees were more vigilant on attack and others stricter on the defending side. Some focused on the scrum and others sought control of the game at the breakdown.

In a match in 2010, New Zealand’s Keith Brown penalised the attacking team 55% of the time, while New Zealand-born Steve Walsh penalised the attacking team 10% of the time in a Test in 2010. Both Brown and Walsh awarded 20 penalties in the game.

How can two referees see the game of rugby so differently if the laws were that clear and all a referee had to do was know the laws, identify the infringement and apply the sanction of a penalty?

The obvious counter is that different teams, with different player disciplines and different match conditions, would make this possible, but there is too much variance with referees who officiated with the same teams for it to be as simple as ‘a different Saturday and a different result’.

Those referees officiating in the biggest matches of the year showed as much disparity in the origin of the penalty over a period of three matches, with Ireland’s Rolland penalising the attacking team 44% of the time, as opposed to France’s Romain Poite, Wales’ Owens and South Africa’s Joubert, who penalised the attacking team only 20% of the time.

Joubert, as an example, in his first three Super Rugby matches in 2010, awarded 42 of 44 penalties in favour of the team with the ball, and in his three international matches in 2010 penalised the team without the ball 57 times and the attacking side (with the ball) 15 times (21%). Joubert and Rolland are regarded as two of the best in the business, but their areas of focus are different, which means that the same two teams, on two different Saturdays, would deliver two very different performances and probably get two very different results.

It can’t be right when teams fear or favour a referee more than the opposition, but in rugby it is no longer a case of what is right and wrong, but what is perceived (by the referee) to be right and wrong – and that is very wrong.

Offending actions in 2010
To illustrate the complexities of the modern game, be it officiating, playing or coaching, referees in the leading global competitions judged on the following actions last year:

> Obstruction by attacking player.
> Attacking player sealing off (off feet).
> Defending player off feet (not supporting own body weight).
> Defending player falling on wrong side and sealing off.
> Attacking player in from side (incorrect joining ruck or maul).
> Defending player in from side (incorrect joining ruck or maul).
> Late shoulder charge.
> Early tackle.
> Dangerous tackle – swinging arm.
> Dangerous tackle – tip tackle.
> Attacking player holding on – not releasing.
> Hands in ruck by defending player.
> High tackle.
> Tackler not releasing – preventing release.
> Tackler not rolling away – preventing release.
> Defending player collapsing maul.
> Attacking player advancing – in front of kicker.
> Attacking player playing defender without ball.
> Defending player playing attacker without ball.
> Attacking player playing ball on ground (off feet).
> Defending player playing ball on ground (off feet).
> Defending player kicking ball on ground (off feet).
> Defending player playing jumper in air.
> Defence offside.
> Defending player offside at ruck, maul, or turnover.
> Defending player not retreating out of 10m radius.
> Defending player going off feet and diving on attacker.
> Deliberate knock on by defending player.
> Attacking player must get to his feet first before playing the ball.
> Attacking player playing ball in an offside position (knock).
> Defending player playing ball in an offside position.
> Collision with no arms.
> Foul play by attacking player (trampling).
> Foul play by attacking player (knee to player’s head).
> Foul play by defending player (striking a player).
> Trip by defending player.
> Not back 10m.
> Attacking tighthead – feet went away with the pressure.
> Attacking tighthead – collapsing.
> Defending tighthead – collapsing.
> Defending loosehead – not staying straight (around scrum).
> Defending loosehead – not staying in scrum.
> Defending tighthead – binding (not staying in scrum).
> Defending loosehead – in on angle.
> Defending loosehead – head and shoulders.
> Defending loosehead – straight to ground.
> Defending tighthead – straight to ground.
> Attacking hooker – standing up.
> Defending hooker – standing up.
> Attacking loosehead – collapsing.
> Defending loosehead – collapsing.

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April issue will be on sale from 16 March.
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