Safe rugby is boring rugby

Gavin Rich

Rugby is facing a massive catch-22 in its quest to both satisfy the drive to make the game fairer and safer, while also halting the declining interest in the sport by making it more entertaining and watchable.

It should be a concern to World Rugby that the best game of a mediocre past weekend of international rugby, the one at Twickenham, should end amidst a chorus of boos.

If you take away the reasonable question about whether the angle provided by the television cameras really gives you a fair idea of where the offside line is in close calls, the TMO was correct in disallowing the try that might well have given England victory over the All Blacks.

That’s if you apply the letter of the law. But it was interesting that someone as experienced as Sky commentator Stuart Barnes should dispute the call. Anyone who has read or listened to Barnes will know he’s not a fan with a microphone, he is one of the most objective people in the business.

Barnes said the game was decided by a subjective call. What he would have been referring to there was not just the marginal nature of the call, but also the probability that for a TMO to spot the infringement he had to really be looking for it.

The Sharks under Gary Gold and then later Robert du Preez have had problems at Ellis Park in recent years with a TMO who they felt looked too hard for errors in Sharks scoring movements, and less hard for errors from the Lions.

The marginal TMO call that may have decided the Twickenham game focused on an incident that nine times out of 10 would have been ignored and which would almost certainly have been overlooked had it not led to a try.

For those who disagree with that, here is a challenge – watch the video of the plays that took place after that incident and tell me there wasn’t at least one occasion that the All Blacks did not go offside and should have been penalised. If you really look for it, you will find it.

Why this is a catch-22 for World Rugby is that if there is to be a quest for referees and TMOs to get everything 100-percent correct and to be fair, then the TMOs have to play more of a role. Yet there is already too much interference and too much holding up of play by TMOs.

But here’s the big problem World Rugby should be wrestling with: The sport, like lots of professional sports that are leaning towards the over-use of technology, is losing its spontaneity.

Before technology was introduced fans and players could immediately celebrate the awarding of a try to their team with unbridled delight. Now the celebration has to be mooted by the possibility that a TMO might go back to a play that happened two minutes earlier.

Professional sport needs to be lived in the moment to be properly enjoyable for both fans and participants, but increasingly that key ingredient is being lost.

What is also being undermined is flow and tempo, and some games are held up so much by TMO intervention that the whole fatigue factor is taken out of it. The most recent example of that was the recent stop-start Currie Cup final, where the suspect Sharks fitness was just never tested because of all the stoppages.

Instead of being played over 80 minutes, a rugby match now extends beyond 100 minutes. People talk about ball-in-play time but how relevant is that if a period where there is extended ball-in-play is then followed by an extended period where the spectators who paid to watch the game sit around picking their noses?

A few decades ago, no-one cared too much about extra entertainment at a game, there wasn’t much need for cheerleaders. Now it has become a massive emphasis because there is time during today’s paused matches that needs to be filled.

The player safety issue is also a catch-22 because an over-sanitised game is a less appealing one to the paying spectator. I joined the rest of the rugby world in condemning Angus Gardner for not penalising Owen Farrell at Twickenham 10 days ago, but there were a few contrary voices on the Kiwi television program, Breakdown, worth taking note of.

Richard Turner argued that Andre Esterhuizen made it hard for Farrell because he led into the tackle. It was hard to disagree with him if you followed his argument. As the law stands, it should still have been a penalty because intent is irrelevant. The same argument applies to cases when players are sent off because of clashes in the air and the sort of incident that led to Kwagga Smith being red-carded in the 2017 Super Rugby final.

But isn’t that bollocks? Of course there is a need to try and keep the game as safe as possible, but there are also too many contests ruined by cards that are dished out for what was often an accident rather than the result of malicious intent.

The former All Black lock Ali Williams was also part of that Kiwi TV show. His view was an unambiguous one – rugby is a contact sport where there will be collisions, and the drive to take the collision aspect out of it is detracting from the appeal of the sport.

I’m completely with Williams on that. If World Rugby ignores that line of thinking, they do so at the sport’s peril.

- Gavin Rich

Let's chat

  • John Comyn

    The fact is almost no try scored can be taken as a given without going to the TMO. As Gavin says it is taking the enjoyment out of the game. We need neutral referees with his two assistants running the lines. Yes you may get a few bad calls but it cuts both ways. Replays can be done after the game where the referees performance can be assessed by various refereeing panels depending on where specific competitions are being played. The World Rugby International panel adjudicates the internationals..

  • Sharky

    We want blood! We want guts!! We want broken bones and cracked skulls!!!

    Yes, rugby is a contact sport, but the size and speed of the players and the nature of the game have changed since the good ol’ amateur era. That means that the calibre of injury that these guys could inflict on each other if we were to go back to 1970’s rules is exponentially higher. I’m not a fan of restricting contact in a contact sport, but the only alternative is weight/size limits… or we can just let the players beat the snot out of each other.

    As for the TMO – again, times have changed and his influence cannot be removed without causing a public outcry. Yes, waiting those extra second for a decision to be confirmed is annoying, but the alternative is the ref making the decision himself and fans at home and in the stadium baying for his blood if the instant reply shows that he got it wrong. Imaging the unending winging: “We were robbed!!”, “The ref is blind!!!” etc. Even if broadcasters were banned from providing instant replays PVR technology and HDTV means that a determined coach sportsman could construct his own instant replays. So unfortunately the TMO genie can’t be put back into the bottle.

  • Barry

    The Courtney Lawes decision, was to my mind quite simple. At a glance, Lawes was half a metre ahead of any of the others in the defence line, so your’e left to decide whether Lawes was indeed off sides or whether all his team members had it wrong. No debate really!
    It is true that New Zealand probably had a number of similar transgressions, but then let’s rather complain about those, if there are indeed examples to discuss. More to the point, I can almost guarantee that the New Zealanders would have all been in a neat row, slightly off sides and certainly not obviously off sides as Lawes was. They are taught to cheat properly in new Zealand, none of this amateur stuff, please!

    • Herman Schroder?

      Barry If you look closely Lawes tracks across but when he launches himself his back foot comes down behind the ‘ruck’. At the time of the ball being lifted he was therefore onside assuming that BOTH feet must be behind the last row of feet per the the law book. Also as he launches the ruck is simultaneously driven back a half a metre. Very unlucky I believe.
      In my opinion this was Marius grandstanding again and earning some brownie points with the kiwi’s. He’ll be a TMO for life after this. Cheers.

    • SweetAz

      LOL,—“taught to cheat PROPERLY”

  • Barry

    I agree with Sharky, the TMO calls need to stay unfortunately. We have al forgotten just how frustrated we were some years back when we were getting outrageous on field decisions – replays on screen made it immediately apparent that the on field decision was wrong, and there were mass cries for technology. Now we have it, we want to get rid of it!!
    Probably the biggest solution would be in the simplification of the laws, so that the TMO doesn’t have to first consult with his lawyer before making a call!
    In American foot ball for example, you merely have to cross the trie line, perhaps this could be adopted, which would get rid of hours of TMO debate. If you carry the ball over the line, you’ve got 5!
    Also the forward pass debate, that frustrates endlessly. If you sat down to calculate forward passes, you need a very good calculator and about twenty minutes, no less all the support data such as velocity, distance travelled, speed, departure point, finishing point and so on. It amazes me how TMO’s can take a quick glance and say no problem it was passed backwards – they simply don’t have enough info to make those calls, so just revert to the ball must go backwards and get rid of all the debate!

    • Herman Schroder?

      Barry to simply it further. The ball must be received by the support runner behind the passer. Referees discretion if a passer is tackled backwards as he passes. The floating, forward momentum rubbish should not apply and the linesman need to be more involved as well. Cheers.

  • John Comyn

    With regards to the forward pass there is absolutely no need to consider all the permutations you suggest. If the referee or his assistants call it forward then it is forward. Like it’s always been since the game has been in existence. The ref and the linesmen are closest to the play and make that decision. Yes they may get it wrong from time to time but you win some lose some. If sides are intent on living on the edge with playing the flat pass they will have to accept it if the call does not go their way. TMO’s with all the technology available to them still get it wrong so what’s the point. Somewhere along the lines they need to stop this stop, start stuff. The only good reason for a TMO is someone to check the grounding. Otherwise the 3 officials on the park should be able to make a call. IMHO

  • EddieDW

    On the TMO’s: We need to keep them. I would rather wait a minute for the correct call to be made than spend the next week complaining (or hear other fans complaining) about being robbed. Just sort one or two kinks out. For instance the speed at which a decision is made, I want to pull my hair out of my head when the TMO watches the same replay at the same speed 10 times when a decision could have been made after the first 2 viewings.
    Also, we need to invest in more technology to empower TMOs and refs to make better decisions. Why can’t we use a digital straight line, as is used in the NFL 1st downs and for soccer’s offside replays, to determine whether a pass has gone forward or if someone is offside? Isn’t there a way to design a chip to be inserted in a ball to indicate grounding?

    As for big hits, there are plenty of big hits which happens within the constraints of the laws to entertain the viewer. All we need is for more consistency to be applied in these rulings.

    • nezo

      Perfectly said Eddie. They should read what you just wrote

  • Chris

    As someone living in the US I can tell you, you do not want to get to the point they’re at here with the head injury issue in the NFL. Football is running out of players at the school level on a massive scale. And its not just snowflake Dads and soccer moms pulling their kids from the game. I’ve talked to many former players who do not let their kids play the game even at peewee level. Especially now that they’re seeing CTE show up in junior players.

    You’re starting to see players here retiring at 21-24 years old because of fear of getting CTE later in life like so many senior players. The damage is done in the NFL, because they were slow in dealing with the problem. Now they have hundreds of x-players with huge mental health issues that won’t go away. The new guys are looking at them and thinking about how much all that money and fame would be worth if they lose their minds in their 40s.

    If you think the game is getting “soft” because of all the new rules protecting the players you should really pay attention to the tragedy that’s unfolding in the NFL.

    • nezo

      Wow Chris

      this is why it is always good to have an outside perspective.

      My father, me and my brother played rugby in school. i always wondered though why daddy was not so keen on us playing rugby. In his time rugby was far less regulated as is now. So he would tell us of horrifying incidents that happened to players. Even though he highlighted to us that rugby has become safer. yet he still feared for his sons based on past experiences with the old unregulated rugby.

      So i too do not agree with Gavin. Less regulated rugby will drive people away more than it would bring them in.

      You don’t know how scared many black boys are of playing rugby even now. i tell them there is nothing to it. it is really nice. Now imagine how much more scared young boys would be if it would be less regulated.

      Safer Rugby is not BORING by the way.

  • IRC

    Without TMOs and replays the wrong calls were being made. With TMOs and replays the wrong calls are being made. So save us time and bring back spontaneity and drop the TMO.

  • Blokkies Joubert

    Suggesting the game is going soft and by that, less entertaining is ridiculous and amateurish.

    I challenge you to risk your career every weekend, just so it can be plucked away with a silly tackle, forever.

    Now before you hail the olden days of amateur rugby, and pin this “luxury” of a sports career on the players,
    This is what we as spectators wanted, big games every week, always winning attitude, better, faster, bigger, more tries. No? You say you did not ask for that? I challenge you, go watch a review of an international test before 2004. They are terrible, the game is tough, but the skills and athleticism is not half of what it is now. These full-time athletes invest all their time in their skill, the game plan, understanding the game and analytics. Rugby in general today is technically better than it has ever been. FACT.

    But I digress. The point is, if you want the best athletes in the world to invest max 15 years of their life into a short-lived career that is balancing on the needlepoint of lifelong injury, then Player Safety is a must. Rugby in South Africa is not even such a well paying sport, you can make more by the age of 35, by finishing your degree, than the average Springbok player. Otherwise, they will find other better places and sports around the world to invest those skills in.

    If you are here only for the big hits then you might consider this “Boring”, if you are here to see how we counter every tactical move from the opposition team, with a new set of predetermined plans and actions every Saturday, then lets agree to make Rugby a great investment for these incredible athletes.

  • RugbyPleeze

    So many rugby matches are being spoilt by unnecessary interventions, be they by the Ref or linesman or TMO.
    A couple of simple changes will make the rugby more flowing, more interesting to watch and also more attractive.
    My suggestions are:
    1] Forbid anyone for jumping up in the air to catch a ball except in the line-outs – freekick to non-offender; and
    2] Referees and Linesmen must apply off-side rule much much better, i.e. BOTH FEET behind the last feet at a ruck or scrum or line-out – Currently this is not refereed properly and kills off any decent attack by the opposition – we want to see running rugby, not a kicking contest (create a different game for people who want to pay money to see a kicking contest. By not penalising a team for this simple rule constantly creates the situation where teams are playing old-fashioned crashcar rugby which is uninteresting and boring.
    3] Allow only 1 reset scrum before giving a free kick to the non-offending team and only if it is due to the grass being very damaged by the weather. This will eliminate the 5 to 6 scrum-attempts prior to getting the game going again.
    4] The new rule by the IRC to limit the number of time that a TMO may advise a referee is a bad idea since the allocation of non-partial referees is very absent in the allocation of the them for various games and thus spoils the game due to the bias of the referee or linesman.
    In short the rules must be made less to allow for the game to flow and running rugby should be promoted more otherwise you are going to get more and more “hollywood-situations” such as is present in soccer, to gain penalties – Free-kicks should be given more than penalties that will improve the flow of the game.
    Rugby is losing a lot of followers due to more interruptions, more reset scrums as well as bad referee decisions due to blatant bias by them.
    A decade ago, I used to tape test matches from all nations to watch again after a while to re-enjoy the good moments – nowadays, I do not even watch any replay of highlights (however few they are in reality), since the quality of rugby at test level and professional level has gone downward fast due to bad refereeing and crashcar rugby.
    Wish rugby could become faster, have more running tries, better refereeing and less cheating by most of the top-10 World rugby teams.

  • Frans

    I have no doubts that after the ref awarded the try which he did very confidently, he did not hesitate for a second I am sure and it will not surprise me in the least informed by NZ players to look at the off -side. No doubts in my mind and the ref fell for it? Why? Oh because its the AB’s. What else. They have now been protected for too many years by the officials and now everything is catching up. People now talks.

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