Why Professional Rugby is Impossible to Referee

In 2015 we wrote an article asking if professional rugby is now impossible to referee (read here); 18 months on and nothing has changed and there is a case to say that the referee’s job has become even harder.

If you read any rugby forum or Twitter conversation about a top end rugby game the comments always end up being focused on how poor the referee was – but how can this be the case when we have the best referees in the world officiating?

One of the main reasons that rugby watchers end up with this view is because they see infringements against their team, that the officials don’t pick up. The natural conclusion therefore is that the officials are incompetent? But how have we got to this position?

 

Rugby – the only sport that ignores infringements?

Rugby must be the only sport in the world where (at a conservative guess) more than 90% of infringements are ignored by officials. In every other sport, if a player infringes the rules or laws of the game they are penalised – but not in rugby!

This selective penalisation of offences is partly a function of the complexity of the game but in today’s world of professional rugby, it is more a function of the mass coaching of players to infringe, knowing referees can only penalise a small number of offences or they would render the game unwatchable.

To explain this concept in more detail let’s look at a 10 second clip from the 2017 6 Nations game between France and Wales. The clip shows the last second or two of a scrum, a penalty tap and the ensuing ruck.

Yes, this clip was in the dying stages of the game and the Welsh defence was hanging on but the offences are pretty common at any stage of a game at professional level. What the footage shows is replicated across all professional rugby on a regular basis.

To replicate the view of the respective supporters of each team, watch the clip again, firstly as a supporter of France and then as a Welsh supporter, and note down how many infringements you spot by the opposition in each case.

 

What’s an infringement?

When trying to spot the infringements, the first question that may pop in to a reader’s head is, what do you mean by infringement? Again, the complexity of rugby means we have perhaps 4 levels of laws and how they are officiated and applied:

  • The Law Book – the laws of rugby as written down. Sometimes these are followed, often they are ignored or “interpreted”
  • Law application guidelines and clarifications – these are official interpretations by World Rugby that are available on the website
  • Officials’ guidelines – if you are referee then you will receive coaching and information that helps you in your job. At the top level, the elite referees are given instructions by World Rugby that dictate how they adjudicate the game but these instructions aren’t made widely available to the rugby watching public
  • Individual referee’s interpretation – we still have referees interpreting laws differently, particularly across the two hemispheres

We won’t go in to this topic in any more detail now but it’s worth flagging the uncertainty we all have around what is or isn’t against the laws of the game.

 

The French View 

As a French supporter these are the Welsh infringements we spotted – there may be more you have seen that can be added to the list.

(1) Welsh loose head “hinges” with his head way below his hips, causing the scrum to collapse

 

(2) Welsh tight head collapses scrum under pressure – we can’t see what exactly happened given the camera angle, but this is what Wayne Barnes singles out as he penalises Wales

(3) Preventing a quick penalty tap – as Barnes signals for a French penalty, Rhys Webb tries to prevent or slow down the quick French tap by grabbing Picamoles.

 

(4) Failure to retreat from penalty – as Picamoles taps the ball at least 2 of the Welsh players in the camera view have not retreated to the try line.

 

(5) Not coming through the gate – as the tackle was made on Picamoles, Luke Charteris (number 19) approaches the tackle but fails to come through the Welsh gate, instead he flops on the tackled player on the French side in an effort to slow the ball down.

(6)  Not getting to feet or rolling away after a tackle – Liam Williams (number 11) assisted with the tackle but instead of getting to his feet or moving away from the tackle he attempts to play the ball (or at least slow it down) while still on his knees (he is the middle player in the screen shot below).

 

(7) Failure to release the ball while off feet – we can’t see who the player is but Barnes eventually penalises a Welsh player on the floor. We can just see the ball and the players arms as he belatedly tries to get away from the ball.

 

 

The Welsh View

Now switching sides and watching the events from a Welsh perspective there are a number of French infringements we spotted:

(1) The French tight head prop Slimani binds on the arm of his Welsh opposing prop pulling him downwards and causing the scrum to collapse.

 

(2) Penalty kick taken from the right place? It isn’t clear from the camera angle but it looks like Picamoles took the penalty tap in front of Waynes and not behind him or through the line of the mark.

 

(3) Offside at the tap – any players infront of the ball when the penalty is taken must immediately retire. In this case the French number 7 continues to move forward immediately after the tap rather than retreat until he was put onside.

 

(4)  Not joining the ruck at the back foot – Maestri (wearing 5) at the top of the image doesn’t join the ruck at the back foot but halfway down the ruck and ends up on the Welsh side (see second image where we can make out his number 5 shirt).

 

11 Infringements in 10 Seconds

If we sum these infringements we get 11 infringements in total, spread across the 2 teams. This total does not include other laws that are part of the law book but are not applied today, like having heads and shoulders no lower than hips when when joining a ruck or endeavouring to stay on one’s feet at the ruck. There are numerous examples of ruck laws that are just not applied any more.

Given the number of offences by each side that are ignored by the officials, we can easily see how supporters end up feeling their team has been hard done by and then blame the referee.

There isn’t an easy solution to the problem. The 3 possibilities are:

i) coaches and players back off and stop offending so frequently – which isn’t likely to happen given the win at all costs of modern rugby

ii) the officials start to penalise more offences

iii) we move towards the american football model of officiating, with a number of officials looking at different types of offences at any time

We will look at these options in a future blog, but for now it is easy to appreciate why supporters from all sides get frustrated during matches.  For those supporters who know the laws of the game, rugby can be a frustrating game to watch at the moment.

 

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