Ref subjectivity here to stay?

Tank Lanning

Again the referees and officials came in for huge stick after the Vodacom Super Rugby semi-finals on the weekend. Boy do these guys have the ability to infuriate, but my oath do they have a tough job to do?

Scrum penalties are my pet hate, so Marius van der Westhuizen’s unfair disliking of the way Thomas du Toit was getting the better of Lions tighthead Ruan Dreyer got my goat. Du Toit picked up 3 scrum penalties and was threatened with an early shower by Van der Westhuizen.

Game-changing penalties based on guesswork! Roll away, tackler!

The yellow cards shown to Chiefs flanker Sam Cane and Hurricanes prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen for tackles that made contact with the opposition player’s head also got the tongues wagging.

Both were debatable given that the player they were tackling had for one reason or another dipped massively into the tackle, thus leaving the tackler no time at all to adjust their tackle height.

In Cape Town, TMO Johan Greeff called for a review and twice overruled the views of referee Jaco Peyper, firstly in deeming a penalty was warranted, and then a yellow card.

If the TMO and referee are struggling to agree, just imagine the vitriol going down on Twitter!

Tackling the player in the air is also becoming much more difficult to officiate given that players are now jumping into the air just prior to being tackled. In a split second, a perfectly legal tackle becomes a card delivering act of malice.

Both laws brought in to improve player safety, now being used by said players to milk penalties. That’s not cricket. Or rugby!

“All you want is consistency,” said Chiefs coach Dave Rennie in the pres conference on Saturday after his side had beaten the Stormers.

Is that all we really want, though?

What about simplifying the overly complex set of rules, with a view to removing all referee subjectivity? Don’t we rather want to implement purely objective decisions based on the black and white of the rule book?

One of the biggest issues in the game is the subjectivity required by the officials, as it leads to laws being interpreted differently in every game. Hence, Rennie’s call for consistency.

Simplification, thankfully, is seemingly on its way. By late next year we could all be enjoying a simpler game, with the law book set to be halved, thanks to World Rugby commissioning a technical group to undertake a Laws Simplification Project.

The revised book has gone through World Rugby’s Laws Review Group – which Rennie sits on – which has signed it off. It has now been sent to the national unions to check if the intent of the law remains correct.

So far, all feedback has been good.

Simplification should also lead to more objectivity, but I do not see rugby ever losing all subjectivity – unless we are prepared to keep penalty milking in the game.

Deciding which prop is dropping the scrum, presuming it’s not plain old physics, would make for a column of it’s own, so perhaps let’s stick to the dropping and jumping into a tackle.

Simplification of the rules might add “Unless it’s done intentionally”, but then who decides on the intent? There was certainly no intent to dip into the tackle from either Leyds or the Brumbies’ Wharenui Hawera, yet opinion still rages on whether the respective tacklers deserved yellow cards.

Obviously one wants to protect a player jumping into the air to take a high ball, but how much protection does a player deserve while jumping into the air with ball in hand as he is about to get tackled?

Again, who decides on the intent?

How about a centralised TMO body to oversee all referrals from a specific tournament? That way, at least it’s the same people overseeing all the decisions, and by having more than one person (the referee would be removed from all TMO calls), we bring in more objectivity.

One way or another though, for as long as we keep intent in the laws – and surely we must – there is always going to be some form of subjectivity in rugby officiating.

- Tank Lanning