Sport Rugby

Monday 19 February 2018

It's time for referees to get onside with offside

Consistency must be name of the game with back foot rule

Australia’s Tevita KuriDrani (bottom) scores the winning try in the last minute of their Rugby Championship match against South Africa.
Australia’s Tevita KuriDrani (bottom) scores the winning try in the last minute of their Rugby Championship match against South Africa.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

You wonder if Craig Joubert, currently perched at the top of the refereeing tree, thinks back to that October night in Auckland in 2011 when be bailed the All Blacks out of jail. Locked in their mental torture of stalling at yet another World Cup fence, the South African had one of those slow-motion moments referees dread.

With the clock counting down and the ABs a point ahead - and in panic mode - Joubert stared into the abyss that was a breakdown, with men in black off their feet illegally. And he bottled it. The word screaming off the page was penalty - to France, for whom it would have been a relatively straightforward shot on goal - but the ref wasn't reading it. It was a microcosm of the enormous pressure referees have to endure. Even with the advent of the TMO most of their decisions are made in real time, and it is an incredibly difficult job. So you wouldn't have been human if you didn't feel for the South African, even if at that moment he got it horribly wrong.

We were inclined to feel a bit less for him on Friday when the warm-up for the World Cup got under way with the opening round of the Rugby Championship, in Christchurch - a town you don't hear much about these days. Having had an historic run-out in Apia the previous weekend, New Zealand had an added advantage over Argentina. Typical of their start to all games, when they look to put heat on their opponents, the first casualty was the offside line.

This is a period when players' and coaches' antennae are fully extended. And if they aren't picking up signals from the referee that policing the back foot is a priority, then they will shape their game accordingly. So in the fourth minute, when Owen Franks pitched his tent halfway up the side of the Puma ruck, he was camping on ground he considered safe - if illegal. And he was right. Fast forward 24 hours to Brisbane - where the top tier of Suncorp Stadium was closed for the Australia versus South Africa Test - and initially we had a different picture. Will Skelton strayed offside in midfield at a ruck, and a couple of phases later referee Nigel Owens whistled him for it.

There was no apparent signal from Owens that he was playing advantage so maybe it was a late call from his assistant on the touchline. Because we don't have access to the channel surfed by the ref and his assistants, we don't know what they say - and, more importantly, what they don't say.

What we know for certain is that mostly it's not working. What started out in yesterday's Test as an area of priority had, by the end, become one of those government pieces of legislation rendered meaningless because there is no one to implement the law. With governments it's invariably a question of human and financial resources. With rugby, however, it's a question of political will.

The only rational inference we can draw from the refusal to ref the back foot - a plague that is eating valuable space in the game - is the fear of a penalty-fest. If Nigel Owens and his assistants had continued as they started yesterday then we would have had a much different game - and he would have been buried at the post-match press conference by both coaches for inflicting a world record number of penalties on the players and fans.

Perhaps neither Owens nor Joubert felt they were empowered genuinely to go out and lay down the law. If so then their boss Joel Jutge has a job on his hands, one so far he has failed - as have his managers at club level in both hemispheres - to carry out. In just over a month the Rugby Championship and the European warm-ups for the World Cup will be complete, and we will have a clearer vision of what to expect when the big show moves to England.

We live in hope that Joubert and Owens and their colleagues are whistling a different tune by then.

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