Rugby must right referee wrongs

MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day column, writes it’s about getting decisions right in rugby and not ignoring why so many referees get so much wrong.

Referees are by nature not cheats. Some are better exponents of their profession than others and some have bigger egos than others. They are not robots, they have emotions and they have vulnerabilities. They need to be protected because of their human flaws and excused their human errors.

I’d hate to be a referee because it is what they get wrong that makes the headlines and not how much they get right. It is the same for the cricket umpire and the soccer referee and whoever officiates in whichever code.

There was a lot of resistance to the introduction of the review system in cricket, but it was designed to reduce the many mistakes being made.

More accurate decisions are being made in cricket and the mistakes are fewer because there is the television option to take a second look.

Rugby Union introduced the Television Match Official to assist in try-scoring situations. This season, referees were given additional powers to go “upstairs” and go back two phases for an infringement in the build-up to a try, and they can also go upstairs to assess dirty play or an illegal tackle.

It has been good for the game because it has allowed for greater accuracy and reward for the right team.

But the breakdown remains a lottery and falls to referee interpretation and there is something wrong if teams focus more on the referee than the opposition in preparation.

Some referees allow everything to go at the breakdown. Some allow the tackler all the privileges in going for the ball, and some allow the attacker an extended time to hold onto the ball in the tackle before placing it.

Rugby should be about a contest for the ball, but at the breakdown there rarely is one. It is more a case of who has studied the match-day referee’s interpretation better and who adjusts accordingly on the day.

The law is clear in how long a tackled player is allowed to place the ball and from which position the defending side is allowed to compete for the ball. But no two referees in Super Rugby apply the law consistently to the breakdown.

It is down to interpretation and that will always lead to confusion and to accusations of prejudice and bias.

Home teams get the 50-50 decisions. That much is clear every weekend but so many wrong decisions are allowed to be repeated every weekend because referee assessors protect the referees in a misguided way and the game’s administration endorses the view that the referee is untouchable. What seems to be untouchable is the notion that it is okay to be incompetent or to succumb to the chants of home fans.

Referees should be allowed to go upstairs if in doubt, just to have a second look, especially if they know that their decision, often made in the last minute or two of a game, has the potential to determine the outcome.

To cry human error is no longer good enough; not when the millions watching on television get a second view within seconds that confirms the wrong decision has been made.

All that players, coaches and supporters want is consistency in the application of the laws and accuracy in the decision making. They want the right decisions being made.

I also feel teams should be allowed two reviews a match, one in each half, if they feel a decision has gone against them. It will all help eradicate referee mistakes that still influence the outcome of too many matches.

The referee these days coaches more than he applies the laws. He warns players for offences in the first 10 minutes of a match but penalises and yellow-cards players for the same offences in the last 10 minutes of the match. Again, it is down to interpretation when the laws are clear about what warrants a free kick or a penalty.

The “use it or lose it” five-second law at the breakdown clearance is also a joke. Teams are cautioned, warned again and then, after 15 seconds, play the ball without consequence. Another referee simply applies the law and penalises the team when the five-second clearance is not met.

The scrum engagement is another that is determined by the referee’s call and the subsequent offence is also down to interpretation and not consistent with the law.

One referee calls a reset and another penalises.

Replays then confirm a wrong decision more often than not, but the game’s authorities excuse it.

Allowing so much to interpretation and split-second decision making does not protect a referee and neither is it beneficial to the game.

Every effort should be made to get the right decisions. Currently, every effort is made to avoid criticism of the many wrong decisions.