Adjudication Blues

10 10 2007

Rugby What’s wrong with rugby?

Whilst the Rugby World Cup has been, at least for me, a viewing treat – it’s also really highlighted that there are problems within the game that are just not being addressed. And these problems exist within the framework of the game, and the way it’s adjudicated.

During France ’07, I’ve had friends who have a passing interest in the game… a Canadian friend of mine leaps to mind, who stated:
“I’ll never be able to get into the game whilst there are so many inconsistencies (in regards to the refereeing).”
And he’s right. The game is ripe to take it to a larger stage, but it has to be cleaned up first in regards to getting an even playing field going.

Ever since August 26th 1995, when the IRB lifted the ban on payments and declared the sport ‘open’, players have been becoming more and more ‘professional’. I use that term with all the positive and negative connotations that it contains. On the positive side, we’ve seen players become more physically gifted – both in the quality of athlete that plays the game, due to the allure of being able to make a living out of playing, and in the training those same players now undertake.

The other side of that coin is that the game is no longer one played by gentlemen. In that every possible advantage – both within the legalities of the game… and outside – will be pursued. The problem is exasperated by the fact that the fan watching on the TV often has a better viewpoint than the referee. Within the ruck, we easily see hands grabbing for the ball… the players not releasing, or not rolling away. We see the forward pass with clarity. The questionable tackle that wasn’t penalised is viewed constantly. Armchair adjudicators all over the world can see every error unfold before them, and often replayed over and over, ad infinitum. The amount of times in this World Cup I’ve seen players start off-side at the restart is incredible. More often than not.

Alain Rolland - Irish refAnd it all stops what could be termed ‘beautiful rugby’. The wide, expansive running. The flow-on game. We get an ugly, brutalized version of rugby. Slowly pushing the ball from one end to the other. Don’t get me wrong: forward-play & the rolling maul can be an amazing thing to watch – but it shouldn’t be the primary focus of the game. Nothing beats the break-away for sheer excitement.
Simply, the way rugby is currently refereed at the elite level is not up to scratch.

I know purists will get into a fit over this, but let’s explore the issues:

  • The referee simply has too much to look for, especially at the ruck. He can’t both watch hands in the ruck, and the defensive line (for starting offside) at the same time. As a result, both are happening with alarming frequency.
  • Line-outs are an absolute shambles. Often as not by the time the ball’s thrown in, the two lines are shoulder-to-shoulder.
  • As the pace of the rugby has picked up, the referee is often not able to keep up with the game, and is making decisions (or not making them) from behind the actual location of the ball.
  • Consistency is not there from referee to referee. One game to the next can have massive differences in what’s acceptable.

What needs to happen?
The IRB need to really make it clear what they want. Games refereed within the Southern Hemisphere’s Super 14 competition should have exactly the same expectations of adjudication as the Heineken Cup, the Guinness Premiership and the Top 14 (European competitions). Games should be refereed in the 6 Nations tournament exactly the same way as those in the Tri-Nations. And don’t give me the ludicrous excuse “all referees are different” – team sports across the world do it better than rugby does. The IRB needs to set down exactly what it wants, and it’s not open to interpretation, as so many of the current rules are now.

These expectations set down, the way the game is adjudicated needs to be reworked. One of two things needs to occur: either linesmen are given greater powers to call infractions they note (within limitations), or there need to be two chief referees on the ground, each responsible for half the ground. Purists will scream bloody blue murder over this… but they’ll scream just as much when a poor decision robs their side of a much-needed victory. The argument would be that the game couldn’t be refereed by two referees with consistency. Another heap of steaming BS. If the aforementioned point in regards to developing across-the-board consistency were done, there’d be no problems having two referees on the one field of play.
That said & done, I also recognise that it departs too far from the way the game is now played. Then give line judges more ability to impact the way the game’s played.

Fouls committed that impede the speed of the game need to be actually penalised, not just given a ‘talking to’. Sure, the referee tell the players why decisions are being made, but this current practice of not sending off the first hard foul in a game, just because it’s the first foul & you want to give everyone a chance is just so much BS. If a foul warrants a yellow, or even a red card, then it should be given. Regardless of where on the timeclock it occurs. To do any less is to encourage players to be the first one to commit a hard and nasty foul.

Currently, the game is played at a world level… and adjudicated provincially. The IRB needs to ensure that the game is refereed at the same standard it’s played at: professionally.
Bring the game into the 21st century.

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10 responses

10 10 2007
Aaron Becker

I don’t watch union, for several reasons, but one is that the kicking game/penalties seem too important in direct relation to scoring. I do the NRL down here, and for years I couldn’t understand why the public’s mentality was so accepting of obvious bad calls. Although, that was broached towards the latter part of this season, but nothing seems to be done about it. I think they need to bite the bullet and have 2 refs on the field and do something similar to what the NFL does – cause the NFL refs will actually have a quick huddle and discuss what was seen by more than one ref, and they have become very good at making the right call without going to instant review.

11 10 2007
Brock Samson

The IRB has been changing the rules to make the game faster and more fan-friendly for the past ten years or so, and it seems like one of the unintended consequences of this is to make the game harder to officiate. That, plus the natural shortage of quality refs, seem like they explain the current state of play better than “gentlemen no longer play the game.” That’s the worst kind of nostalgia. Rugby has always been about getting away with whatever the ref gives you, regardless of whether “gentlemen” were playing or not.

11 10 2007

Bravo, Don – couldn’t agree more with your approach to this situation.

Hockey has always been reffed with 2 refs – the field is split in two and each ref looks after the ball playing area of their area of the field chiefly and the other ref looks after offsides, off the ball infringements etc and then it swaps when the teams are at the other end. The obvious advantage to this is that because teams play each half and then change direction at halftime, each team gets half a game reffed by one ref and then the other so there is no problem with slightly different interpretations of laws.

11 10 2007

Transparency with regards to what qualifies as good refereeing or not would be helpful for fans around the world. Unlike a lot of other sports it is not always easy to tell who is at fault in a ruck as the timing of when players arrive and who does what and when determines which player should be penalised.

Similarly having the IRB head of referees, Paddy O’Brien, saying Wayne Barnes had a good performance in the France vs New Zealand match but not given another match in the tournament is a case of saying one thing and doing another.

Something does need to be done to clear up the issues because nobody enjoys watching a game where they constantly think their team is getting screwed over while the person two seats over in the bar thinks the exact opposite.

One thing I will disagree with is the statement that Rugby has gone downhill since professionalism. Watching old matches is similar to watching lower grade representative matches now, the players were generally not as skilled and the games were very kick oriented and plodding.

Rugby was at it’s best between 1996 and 2000, in my opinion, when the skill level of players had picked up but coaching and defences were not organized enough to handle it which led to some brilliant, free flowing rugby.

One quick step to get back to this would be a requirement that players have to have both feet behind the offside line rather than just a trailing foot.

11 10 2007

Matt – no where did I state that rugby had gone downhill since professionalism. Quite the opposite. I said that the playing ability has increased tenfold whilst the level of refereeing had remained about the same. Amateur.
And the impact that the divide between playing & adjudication has is quite negative.

And whilst I see your point about the offside line, with respect I think that if the current laws of the game were actually applied, it’d be fine. As it is now, you get a “Bull’s horns” effect where the wings are actually quite a way in front of the line… but it’s impossible for the referee to accurately see, and those that CAN see it (the lines judge) have no power to call it – only ‘suggest’ to the ref, but it all happens so fast it’s rare that anything gets called.

11 10 2007
Biff Donut

One rule change I’d like to see is any kick out of bounds on the fly gets a lineout where the ball was kicked from NOT where it went out of play. Make the rule more like the NFL coffin corner type kicks. If the kick is pinpointed, lands in-bounds, then goes out…OK. But why award the ability to kick a ball way out of play.

Stupid rule.

12 10 2007

Biff… that only occurs when the ball is kicked from within the kicking team’s 22. Otherwise it’s as you desire…

12 10 2007
Aaron Becker

Those direct out-of-bounds punts in American football are a bit harder for extra field position. I’ve seen judges run as far as 20 yds back from where it looked like it went out of bounds.

15 10 2007
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16 10 2007

I’m new to rugby too. A soccer guy. And I think that rugby has fewer problems than soccer. I think the game is much more innovative than soccer. I’ve enjoyed watching England’s run. But I do agree with those who say there is a little too much emphasis on the kicking game. But rugby has the wherewithall to deal with that issue. Whereas in soccer it takes FIFA ages to make any kind of progressive changes…

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