Refs aren’t mind-readers!

Zelím Nel

I was chuffed when Kwagga Smith got a red card in the Super Rugby final. Call me old school, but I quite like the idea of referees applying the laws as they have been written.

That particular law is a mess, in my opinion, but I was pleased that Jaco Peyper followed through and didn’t trade in his whistle for a storyteller’s pipe and rocking chair.

The grey areas and misty law interpretations are a serious repellent to potential rugby supporters all over the world. And yet, it seems like each season brings with it a renewed effort from the lawmakers to address this issue with tweaks and a plea to coaches to make the game more appealing.

To me, that’s a bit like putting a new badge on the back of the Mini Cooper and then telling reviewers to Tweet that the car has improved boot space.

The solution is obvious. Eliminate the grey areas by assigning the referee to the intended task of officiating the game to the letter of the law.

The Currie Cup is being played under a new set of amendments, in line with what will be rolled out in the November Tests. There’s nothing wrong with fine-tuning the laws, but surely this can only happen after it has been established that the existing set didn’t work?

Perhaps there would be no need for changes if referees had applied the current laws without touchy-feely, subjective interpretation.

If Peyper had blown his whistle every time a Crusader was offside in the first half of the final, the Lions would have scored field position or penalty goals, and the Kiwis would perhaps have toed the line after the restart, which may have brought the Lions attack into the game earlier and more effectively.

If refs blew their whistle every time an attacking player, in an offside position, advanced after a teammate kicked the ball, it would either reduce the volume of kicking or increase the space available to the receiving team to counter-attack.

There’s no doubt that the ball-in-play number would plummet as the game slowed down, at least in the short-term. However, coaches would soon instruct their players to stand well behind the last feet on defence, and to time their chase-runs to remain one clear metre behind the kicker when he strikes the ball – both potentially game-changing developments.

This is no defence of the current laws or an attack on the idea of changing them, it’s an attempt to separate those that work, when applied objectively, from those that don’t.

Indeed, the inability to address illogical laws does professional rugby no favours, routinely spoiling the game’s primary function, which is the exhibition of an even sporting contest. Part of the reason for this is that tweaks often seem to be aimed at addressing consequences rather than root causes.

The lawbook is broken as far as it pertains to contesting kicks. Lawmakers don’t know how to eradicate players falling out of the sky onto their heads without banning the aerial contests. That’s why they’ve offloaded the responsibility for providing a solution to the referee who is required to decide – using the words “fair” and “realistic” as parameters – whether both players involved in a mid-air collision were, at heart, really, really-really, trying to win the ball. It’s laughable.

Because of the clumsy laws, a stationary player, who is standing in the landing zone of a high kick, will be red-carded and possibly suspended if his counterpart comes sprinting in, makes an ill-fated leap into the landing zone, clips the stationary player with his ankles, and lands on his left ear.

The referee is not qualified to judge intent, besides which the situation can easily be fixed by making a simple change: player(s) must be stationary, with both feet on the ground, before jumping to receive a kick.

Basketball players are seldom put into a flat spin in the NBA, despite an immense vertical leap, because they don’t bring the same momentum to the contest.

Applied to the Smith-versus-Havili situation, the Crusaders fullback would never have been upended because he would not have arrived in the landing zone early enough to come to a stop and then jump for the ball.

Peyper and his fellow referees would find it much easier to determine whether two players jumped from a stationary position than to discern their intentions leading up to high-altitude wreck.

To quote a former Super Rugby coach, “it’s not rock science.”

- Zelim Nel

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  • Gerbil

    we need guidelines that every ref from WRC level all the way down to primary school can say that this infringement is 3/10 or 7/10, and deserves a penalty, or a yellow or red card, and penalty or scrum.
    it is the inconsistency that is so frustrating for us the fans.
    one ref gives a penalty, or even just allows to play on (with advantage), the following game a different ref (with what often seems to be a similar scenario) hands out a red card, and a team is disadvantaged with playing only 14 men (and sometimes even less)
    thanks for listening to my rant

  • Gerbil

    whatever happened to the double touch rule. many scrummies or whoever is at the back of the ruck seem to set the ball up, and then pick it up (the number 8 in a scrum still using his feet is not guilty of this)
    isn’t that double touching, and penalisable with a turnover at the very least?
    something to think about

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