Dubious refereeing calls tarnish modern game
It may soon be time for rugby's authorities to use an extra official, writes Paul Ackford
There's trouble brewing. Week two of a new season and already there is disquiet over the standard of refereeing.
Last week Ed Morrison, the Rugby Football Union's head of Elite Referee Development, had the good grace to admit that a decision by Andrew Small to show a yellow card to Alex Goode when London Irish clashed with Saracens -- a decision Saracens' director of rugby Brendan Venter believed cost his side the match -- was "wrong".
Two hundred-odd miles from Twickenham, in the fixture at Sandy Park between Exeter and Gloucester, there were at least three forward passes in the opening 10 minutes which were all missed by referee Rob Debney and his two mates.
Small beer? Not at all. If these were isolated errors then no worries, but the Tri Nations has also thrown up a number of occasions where officials have come in for criticism. Early on in that competition All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith expressed doubts over whether referees were fit enough for the modern game, repeating a misgiving he raised a year ago when he wondered whether two referees should control Test matches. There was a blatant forward pass which went unpunished in the build-up to a dramatic late try by Richie McCaw which helped secure New Zealand the Tri Nations title, and which condemned South Africa to a fourth defeat on the bounce.
And Paddy O'Brien, the International Rugby Board's referees' manager, publicly reprimanded assistant referee Cobus Wessels for a call which led to an unwarranted yellow card for Wallaby winger Drew Mitchell. Australia were forced to play with 14 men for 47 minutes when Mitchell was subsequently booked again.
Much more of this and we're into epidemic territory. I have always had the utmost sympathy for the men in the middle, based squarely on the fact that a huddle of five competent referees with the benefit of a high definition, super slow-motion replay would still break up with five different opinions as to which was the worst infringement at any one breakdown. But with the game increasing in pace and complexity, and with more matches turning on a single score or decision, it is clear that refereeing needs to be as flawless as possible.
Smith's call for a brace of refs has been trialled in matches at the universities of Cambridge and Stellenbosch. "We have had a look at it," confirmed O'Brien, "and it might be something we return to in the future. But there are difficulties with how the management of the game is broken up and how the players would adapt to what is bound to be slight differences of style and personality with two officials on the pitch.
"There are examples of using more than one referee in other sports, and the feedback there is that they cover the same amount of territory but that their heartbeats are lower. In other words, it is less stressful."
O'Brien insists that refereeing and referees have never been in better shape. The top officials have access to a full-time consultant who uses tracking devices to tailor fitness programmes to modern demands, and the review system is sufficiently robust to detect and demote officials who perform inadequately.
"We want the best for the best," O'Brien said. "We intend to nominate just 10 referees for the World Cup because we want the top guys out in the middle as often as possible. That's a departure from what used to happen."
Yet for all O'Brien's bullishness, the concerns refuse to disappear. It is my contention that most matches these days will feature two or three noticeably poor decisions which, if not impacting definitively on the actual result, will significantly alter the momentum of the contest.
For instance, officials rarely spot the forward pass which often happens when the defending side, about to return a kick, fling the ball from the wing into the middle of the pitch. Because the referee and his two assistants are keeping tabs on the breakdown prior to the kick, they often miss the indiscretion 40 metres away. Instead of advancing for a prime attacking scrum, the team which made no error is forced to defend once more.
Remedies have been advanced. O'Brien and other leading figures have called for the TV Match Officials to have greater powers. At the moment they can only adjudicate on incidents which occur in-goal when teams are in the act of scoring. But when, at an IRB Council meeting, it was suggested that their terms of reference might be extended to include the build-up to a try, the leading rugby nations voted down the proposal, having failed to agree how far back and into what any television review should take account.
That means that the legitimacy of tries still only gets properly scrutinised in the final moments of execution, with everything else left to the judgment and discretion of officials who, if the last few months are anything to go by, are increasingly fallible.
Saying sorry, as Morrison did last week, is fine. Not having to apologise at all is even better.