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Depowering the referee will reinvigorate rugby

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A forward pass here, boring in on the hooker there? Hey, stuff happens in rugby that shouldn’t, and sometimes it evades the attention of the referee and the ever-expanding posse of prosecutors of the game’s pompously proclaimed ‘laws’.

Occasionally too the ref and the numerous good people in his or her earpiece not only miss an indiscretion but also get a decision completely wrong, ensuring a tide of hyperbolic condemnation, vitriol and acerbic grievance on rugby forums in every corner of the already wretchedly hateful Internet.

When the dust settles, though, most people surely understand to err is human, as former Twickenham resident, poet and satirist Alexander Pope asserted many, many years ago – yes, even before the last time the Wallabies won the Bledisloe Cup.

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Eighteenth-century quips and wisdom aside, to play or watch rugby has long required an unusual degree of faith and tolerance for the man or woman charged with officiating, for the game they play in heaven – which, for the most part, is still primarily developed at private schools in many parts of the real world – is absurdly complicated.

Indeed apparently to ensure peak confusion, rugby insists on brandishing a scripture of rules and regulations that would lull a detail-oriented conveyance lawyer into unconsciousness.

Such complexity had been viewed as a hallmark of the cerebral quality of the otherwise violent game and those better-off people who traditionally played it. In the very ‘beginning’ – 19th century England – the laws were formulated in the context of the world in which the participants, privileged schoolboys, dwelled. It was an environment where the schoolmaster’s word was sacrosanct and the pitch battles on the field perhaps vaguely resembled the skirmishes the future leaders of the empire might eventually oversee to suppress those unruly mobs seeking independence.

At the risk of generalising a little and perhaps skipping 160 years or so of evolution, the modern game is still imbued – for good and bad – with this essentially noble characteristic: respect for the referee’s authority (the schoolmaster). It does set rugby apart, as demonstrated by so many obsequious posts about how often rugby players call the ref ‘sir’, as opposed to soccerites and leaguies who want to fillet the bloke.

But it also brushes over the unique responsibilities and authority of the rugby ref that are increasingly undermining the sport’s faltering campaign for mass popularity and cultural relevance, especially in countries like Australia.

Certainly the noise globally over the ‘issue’ of too frequent referee intervention and perceived poor performance has swelled to the point of being annoyingly ubiquitous and often nonsensical. Amid the baying and barking, much is made of deteriorating standards and things the referee ‘missed’.

But the issue that causes the most significant disruption and in many ways reflects the sport’s elitist heritage and preoccupations isn’t always what the officials get wrong but what they choose to get right. (“Please hold my beer for me to demonstrate,” Monsieur Raynal might as well have said at the farcical end of the Melbourne Bledisloe Cup Test.)

The fact is, if we insist on pedantry to ensure contests are governed by the letter of the law, very little rugby would actually be played in a game. At many breakdowns alone there are multiple infringements. Scrums are sometimes comically illegal, the offside laws are there to be defeated, and did you know players have been known to waste time? Mon Dieu!

The burden on a referee is enormous, though for the longest time it was widely accepted that it was all swings and roundabouts – sure, the ref would miss a few things, but the better team would usually win. It would all even out eventually.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

But then along came globalisation, professionalism and, heaven forbid, a degree of democratisation of the sport. Change – and many would suggest marked improvement – in officiating necessarily accompanied the game getting bigger and the world getting smaller. It was only yesterday, as they say, referees in the northern hemisphere seemed to operate from a very different law book to those from the south. Certainly the advantage rule was rarely, if ever, applied for any length, ensuring the games in the north were often turgid, attritional affairs.

The nail in the coffin for old-school tolerance of the model of the ref as schoolmaster has been video technology together with the very literal interpretation of the high tackle law – an unquestionably necessary step if the game wants to survive or at least outlive league and American football, for example.

There are many worthy debates about how video referring slows down games, but the crux of the matter is we finally get to witness at least a handful of the kind of things that were rarely penalised in the past. In a sport that traditionally only chose to see what it wanted to see, that can be a problem. And it’s not good enough to ignore it if rugby wants to be all it should be – a reliably magnificent mass sporting spectacle.

The sport is not going to eliminate the preponderance and undue influence of the subjective interpretation of laws and mores in games by a referee anytime soon, but acknowledging that it happens is a step in the right direction. It sets the game on the road to reform and overdue self-examination.

Evaluating methods to de-emphasise the referee’s influence on a game is a discussion that is too elaborate to have in detail in this flippant yarn, but it seems to be hard to dismiss evidence that playing more attacking rugby has been met with almost universal approval in recent decades.

Depowering the importance of penalty goals, reducing confusion at the ruck and maul by simplifying the rules, encouraging swift play (a la rugby sevens) in response to an infringement and further incentivising try scoring would help lift the game as a spectacle.

Meanwhile, we will continue to be lumbered with more than the occasional moment of schoolmaster overreach – some educators are sticklers for the rules and a minor indiscretion might get you severely sanctioned, but others will tell you there is a give and take in interaction with students which eventually pays off handsomely for all parties.

Nevertheless, until we can relieve referees of some of that burden of subjective decision-making, we would do well to remember that not only is to err human but, as pundit Pope advised, to forgive is divine.

 

Rugby – The Roar 

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