Wednesday's Ruck & Maul

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Wednesday's Ruck & Maul

(Photo credit, The Times, December, 2023.)

And Some That Is Not So Good!

Wow, body cameras on junior soccer referees!  What’s next? I draw reference today to some further Christmas reading of another interesting article by former England International, Stuart Barnes, in The Times, (Dec. 15th.) on this topic – attitudes towards match officials. Barnes likened the current attitudes and behaviors by rugby players towards referees as being akin to that of professional soccer players.

 “The obsession with winning can kill sport. Perhaps rugby union has always been a little too pleased with its manners. Occasional but extreme acts of violence were turned into after dinner stories that would make the perpetrators criminals anywhere but on the rugby field. But we called referees “Sir”, and we respected authority. The comparison with soccer is impossible to ignore. “They” swarmed around the man with the whistle, every time they thought they might change a decision.

With the advent of technology what was once the rarest rugby petulance has evolved into strategic pressure. On Sunday La Rochelle and Leinster set about making the referee’s task as difficult as possible for their own ends. Leinster were calculating, having two captains speaking to the referee, their persistent querying designed to get into the referee’s brain. For Rochelle, the consensus was they lost the plot. Were they following in the footsteps of their coach, Ronan O’Gara, who has no hesitation expounding his thoughts on officiating.  An outstanding French international, was reduced to waving imaginary yellow cards.

At one point, the referee explained that indeed, there might have been an error – right or wrong, he was not about to be bullied.  Technology proved the referee to be wrong, yet he was right, to stand his ground. Rugby TMO’s are inadvertently threatening to wreck any semblance of decency. Soccer is so big an industry that money has conquered ethics.  Rugby Union is a fledgling. It can learn from gradual revolution of “player power.”

To save the game from inevitable eradication of respect it must maximize the quality of the referees and minimize the use of technology. The two are inextricably linked. Too many referees trust the replay to decide.  They frequently find themselves on the wrong side of the ruck because their mate, the TMO will bail them out.  Without technology they would have to think twice about their positional play. There would be errors but as long as the game is not about eighty minutes of mistaken officiating, the sport can take that, especially given the advantage to the end of endless delays.  There were GOOD referees before technology.

Unfortunately, those who run the game have, with the best intentions, committed an act of vandalism against the spirit of the sport.  It sought – and seeks- a level of perfection that cannot be achieved. TV replays are run by humans (often with a degree of bias to club or country.) Technology for the moment remains so subjective to its scrutiny that it cannot be trusted to achieve the utopia of the perfect interpretation. Instead of accurate decision-making we have created an alternative world of live time/slow-down replays.  It is supposed to be a safety net for the referee. It is another opportunity for players and screaming coaches to force the referee to look again.

Rugby is not at the level of on-field anarchy that is often witnessed in soccer. In the referred to match, the referee threatened cards for excessive verbal pressure. He was firm but still the players got away with a level of pressure that referees must rarely suffer. The short-term solution may be to walk teams back ten metres but long term, the game must be brave enough to return to a past without technology, or its greatly diminished use, in a bid to prevent it being a sport where winning is all that matters. Whatever respect that rugby union possessed will be lost unless the referee’s word returns to being absolute.

Coaches and players understandably think they have a duty to win. It is a debatable but understandable view. But administrators have an obligation to create great sport, not great teams.  Maximize referee power, minimize technology. Take a backwards step into the future, for the sake of rugby.”

How befitting that today’s Ruck & Maul was scribed prior to reading a book review by BC’s Saro Turner, written by retired referee, Wayne Barnes, entitled “Throwing the Book”.  With credit to BC Rugby News, the review can be read in its entirety at Barnes retired from refereeing after vitriol, threats to family and abuse at many levels, following the recent RWC Final, not to mention also, a probable litany of other examples during his first class career.  It was also interesting to read of Leinster’s involvement in both articles!

To conclude, both thought-provoking articles. Barnes (Stuart) is adamant about his point of view. Personally, I am not aware of any changes to Law 6 (5a) - “The referee is the sole judge of fact and of law during a match. The referee must apply the laws of the game fairly in every match.” Although Barnes’ comments apply to the highest level of club professional rugby, often a disturbing observation of some of these unacceptable outcomes are present at far lower levels. At the highest level, with a noted referee retiring after the World Cup (Barnes, Wayne), due to abuse, it must make all lovers of the game sit up and pay attention. We must ensure that at the local junior and club level the right attitudes are inculcated and maintained from the earliest age.