Monday 22 January 2018

Breakdown in communication

An interesting cameo halfway up the Cusack Stand on Saturday. An acrophobic friend has warily abseiled down from what was an indecently lofty perch for someone so petrified of heights to watch a rugby match.

As he sips a calming drink, a stranger approaches seeking similar lubrication.

"What's your condition?" asks the friend. "Watching that sh**e would drive any man to drink," he despairs.

Our stranger would not have been alone. Of the 81,400 or so folks who flocked to the wondrous Croker cathedral on Saturday afternoon, none would have been more confused or addled than Declan Kidney as the game he loves becomes once more embroiled in refereeing pedantry.

Not that Kidney was complaining about referee Craig Joubert. In his eyes, it was a perfect refereeing performance. And therein lay the problem. Confused? Everybody is.

To cut what can be an often tediously long and brutishly boring story short, new interpretations of existing rules have been emphasised globally -- the problem is that in the northern hemisphere, these overtly technical rulings were laid down by IRB referee's boss Paddy O'Brien in the middle of the Six Nations championship.


"We want everyone to be on the same hymn sheet and from June there will be 16 months for all teams to get used to the changes before the World Cup," said O'Brien last week.

The concept may be entirely laudable and, watching England's snore draw with Scotland -- a match that should have been shown in black and white -- demonstrates the urgency in ensuring the game remains attractive.

But the method of this latest tinkering -- so soon after the ELVs fiasco -- leaves a lot to be desired and renders spectators, players and coaches utterly befuddled.

Take David Wallace's perfect tackle on a Welsh player, in combination with Brian O'Driscoll. He was whistled by Joubert because, the official explained, Wallace was deemed to have brought the man down and hence should have released his man before re-contesting for possessing.

"Ah, the new rules?" ventured a confused Wallace. Joubert replied in the affirmative. O'Driscoll was equally confused.

"The new ruling is in and we haven't played a huge amount under them and it's very difficult get out of old habits," the captain said. "It's something that is a work in progress. Hopefully we will get better at it and not give away so many penalties."

Mirroring the confusion on the pitch -- where all but three of Ireland's 16 penalties derived from the interpretation -- was the bizarre manner in which the interpretations have been smuggled into the world's oldest championship mid-campaign.

"The first phone call I got from Paddy O'Brien was after round two of the Six Nations," reveals Kidney. "There was a lot of talk about the breakdown law. We agreed to disagree on it and said we'd meet up.

"I thought Mark Lawrence had a good game against England but then there was a request for a ruling. The ruling came out that it should be as Paddy was pushing for it earlier.

"We met him on Thursday this week and said it was unsatisfactory that midway through a championship the emphasis on a particular law should be highlighted. If you emphasise one do you get the balance on all the other ones? There would be a big debate about that.

"Then we met Craig Joubert on Friday. He's the man with the whistle and he confirmed it -- he did exactly as he said. I thought he had a good game. When you meet a referee and he does exactly as he tells you he's going to do, I'd have no complaints.

"I told him we'd phone Paddy after the meeting. We phoned him but it was a case of no, things were going to stay the way they were.

"We are in the middle of competition, not just the Six Nations but the Heineken Cup, Magners League and a load of others. Now if this is going to be changed, it presents challenges.

"It's hugely important that referees and coaches work together. The job of the referee is hugely difficult and I thought Craig had a good game. We'd have absolutely no complaints there, but it's for the powers that be to decide on the emphasis."

The double tackle by Wallace and O'Driscoll, perfectly legal before Christmas, highlighted the stark change in emphasis.

"In one section of the tackle laws, they say that if you bring the player to ground, then in theory you should have to let him go and then challenge for the ball again. That's if you adjudge David Wallace to have brought him to ground," says Kidney.

"Did he bring him to ground or did the player work his way to ground? I imagine David was trying to keep him up. Then it's a case of do you referee outcome or action?"

Kidney agreed that the southern hemisphere were presumably driving this agenda -- as a quick glance at the Super 14 scores this weekend would suggest -- yet at least they received advance warning.

Kidney spent a sleepless night on Friday night having pored over DVDs of Super 14 matches and he was doubly inconvenienced in terms of preparing his players: how much should he spook them on the eve of a Test match?

Paying €85 a ticket didn't seem smart after such a whistle-fest.

"Yeah, I'd imagine so," said the clearly frustrated coach. "I'm not being smart. It's been a strange 24 hours or so. Last night I watched a few matches from Super 14 to try to see it and I was wondering what was going to happen.

"Then I took a look at our game against Wales last year and I said 'well, there's probably only three occasions in the first 60 minutes of that match which I thought would be blown up'. Today, there were several more. It's like all law changes.


"Like all things, we're pawns. We have to try and find out what the story is. I saw a lot of talk about this but there was no need to talk to the players up until last night.

"The players held their composure -- to have that number of penalties against us but they didn't get upset. I couldn't speak highly enough of them right now."

It's a pressing issue for a game which, as Kidney concurs, is not necessarily broken; merely, it can be spoiled by poor coaching and an inability to enforce all the laws -- offside, anyone -- all the time. Which makes Ireland's convincing win even more impressive.

"The margins are so thin," smiles Kidney. "Had we not got that scrum 10 minutes into the second half and Wales had executed and got to within three points, you could see the momentum building hugely with them.

"One decision goes against you and all of a sudden you're behind points. Against France, once I watched the video, I didn't get overly despondent that we were 23 points a worse side, other than the knock-on effect it's had on the table.

"Today I wouldn't imagine to get overly excited that we managed to win by 15 because I know that one passage of play could make a big difference."

Not excited but still bamboozled by the insensitivity of the sport's curators.

"What's a good game to some people mightn't be a good game to other people," he muses before, one suspects, engaging with a stiff drink.

Irish Independent

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