Over the weekend the only match in the Rugby World Cup I saw ‘live’ in its entirety on television was Saturday night’s All Blacks’ quarter-final demotion job on France. However there is no doubt that this has been a wonderful tournament – the best RWC ever – and, by all accounts that I’ve read or received first hand from those who did see them, the intensity and excitement of the quarter-finals has been extraordinary, sporting drama at its very best.
Here are some brief comments upon various subject matters in no particular order:
ENGLAND’S EARLY DEPARTURE
Some had expressed fears that the host nation failing to make it out of the group stages would somehow harm this festival of rugby union but – thankfully – these have been proved wrong. This is a huge positive.
In any tournament of this nature shocks and instances of the unexpected can happen – indeed it would be not only odd but disappointing if they didn’t. Personally I have no hesitation in being satisfied that the eight teams who made the knockout stage – and indeed those who may now go further, right through to ‘the last team standing’ which actually wins the William Webb Elllis on 31st October – were (and will be) those who most deserved to do so. What could be more fitting?
Never mind the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlies’ – the scoreboards, and in the future the record books, never lie. And shouldn’t.
THE LAWS OF THE GAME
It is inevitable, as time passes, that strategies, tactics, the laws of rugby (and their interpretation by referees and officials) evolve and change. Arguably all that players and spectators alike can do is live by the laws as they exist at any particular moment.
Like all sports, rugby union is not perfect. The complexities of its laws are baffling enough to practitioners and fans, so it is only to be expected that at times ‘outsiders’ (especially new fans) can be left bemused by apparently inexplicable or weird eccentricities.
Even commentators, pundits, players and coaches jokingly admit that they haven’t a clue what is going on or why so (arguably) there’s no point in worrying about this facet of play, not least because if we were going to do it justice we’d probably be here until sometime next February and still be little the wiser.
However, I do want to address the ‘put in’ at the scrum and the ‘throw in’ at the line-out.
As a rugby ‘insider’ – based upon what I (as a fan) see with my naked eye – I find these less than satisfying. Moreover, they are the aspects that most often raised with me by non-rugby fans and rugby novices who are coming to the game trying to learn more.
As I understand it, both the ‘put in’ (at the scrum) and the ‘throw in’ at the line out are required to be straight, as opposed to be crooked. This is because both scrums and line-outs are intended by the laws of the game to be ‘contested’ means of re-starting play. In other words, when they occur, whilst there is supposed to be an advantage to the side initiating each of them, it should always be possible that the other team (via skill, timing and/or effort) can still either disrupt things or even gain possession of the ball for itself. Plainly, if de facto these ‘re-starts’ become habitually uncontested, you might as well do away with scrums and line-outs altogether and instead simply adopt some sort of ‘play the ball’ scenario as occurs in rugby league.
In short, if you wish to retain scrums and line-outs at all (as the overwhelming majority of rugby union people do), you have to have a rule that, respectively, ‘put ins’ and ‘throw- ins’ must be straight.
Thus watching a succession of scrums in which the scrum half puts the ball in not straight, but instead deliberately towards his own set of forwards and yet the referee does nothing about it – when theoretically he ought in fact as a minimum to give an immediate ‘free kick‘ in favour of the opposition – is puzzling to the point of absurdity [see my observation above regarding contestability]. True, very occasionally, only about every thirtieth scrum, out of the blue, the referee sometimes does penalise a scrum half for ‘not straight’, however when this happens it seems completely random because every single onlooker has been watching him put the ball practically diagonally straight to the feet of his second row for the previous twenty-nine scrums.
And what’s the worst thing about all this? Dear reader, it is the fact that (as I understand it) at their symposium before the RWC, the referees all unofficially decided that they were going to allow a marked degree of flexibility in allowing scrum halves to put the ball in squint, in defiance of the letter of the law.
It seems that in this RWC they have also taken a similar stance regarding ‘not straight’ line-out throw-ins, albeit that they do blow their whistles rather more often when throws are clearly off-centre.
THE USE OF VIDEO TECHNOLOGY
I shall declare an interest here – I am in favour of the use video technology in principle. However, as with all sports who have adopted it, there were always bound to be teething problems and cock-ups and this RWC has certainly had its share. Personally I would like both to tighten things up slightly and re-emphasise the referee on the pitch as the final/sole arbiter of decisions on the day.
Some referees – e.g. Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens – already seem to be operating as I think is best. Broadly speaking, they resort to the TMO whenever they (or either/both of their touch judges) feel unclear or unsighted as to whether, e.g. a try has been scored and/or an act of foul-play or an infringement of the rules may have occurred that would negate a try. They then watch the video re-plays on the big screen in the stadium and speak to the TMO official in the manner (this a hypothetical example): “Let me tell you what I’ve seen. I cannot spot an actual grounding of the ball from any angle and therefore I propose to award a ‘scrum five’ with the put-in going to the attacking team. Do you have any problem with that?” and the TMO usually says (assuming he doesn’t think he’s seen different) “None” … and that is that.
I’m much less in favour of the TMO suddenly calling up the referee on his ear-piece and asking him to stop the game because he (the TMO) wants to go back and review the video-tapes again because he thinks he’s seen an act of foul play. This is frustrating for the players and spectators because it disrupts the flow of the game and indeed undermines the referee’s authority. In my view, (1) I’d stop this practice but rely upon the TMO reviewing the tapes of the entire game after it is over and then, if necessary, ‘cite’ any offender who has committed foul play [N.B. This happens anyway]; and (2) I’d beef up the sanctions against players who commit foul play.
I’d do the latter because (arguably) if say a player from Team A commits an act that merits a yellow card and ten minutes in the bin which the referee missed during the game, Team B might feel very aggrieved because – had it been spotted at the time – they would/should have had ten minutes’ worth of playing against 14 … and thereby had a decent chance of scoring more points and perhaps winning a game that on the day they lost. You cannot go back and re-play a game and/or later declare a game’s result void because of a piece of foul play but, to try and stop players getting away with offending without affecting the result of the game, I’d go for say a three to four week ban (where currently they dish out e.g. just a single-week one for an act of foul play cited after the game).
On the subject of the last-minute penalty award by South African referee Craig Joubert by which Australia beat Scotland in their quarter-final yesterday.
Generally-speaking I am against criticising specific referees. Take Wayne Barnes for example. I think he’s a very good official, one of the world’s best. And yet the population of New Zealand will never ever forgive him for his performance as referee in the All Blacks defeat by France at the 2007 RWC, in which (allegedly) he failed to disallow a French try which included a blatant forward pass somewhere in the relevant passage of play. I don’t know whether he did or not, but in fact the All Blacks lost that game for a variety of reasons, not least their inability to engineer any number of missed opportunities to attempt a drop goal that would have secured them the victory.
All the above registered, I know fans of at least three Aviva Premiership clubs who genuinely believe that Barnes is biased against them whenever he referees their games.
Yesterday the Scotland team, its supporters and indeed many pundits, were convinced that Craig Joubert had committed an outrageous travesty by not referring the ‘last act’ of the match, for which he awarded a penalty to Australia that won them the game, to the TMO. Their sense of injustice was compounded by their belief that the Scottish forward judged to have been ‘offside’ (for which offence Joubert had awarded the penalty to Australia) had technically not been offside at all because ‘the last man to touch the ball beforehand’ had actually been an Australian, not a fellow Scot.
As I understand the accounts I have read overnight on the websites of the ‘serious’ British newspapers, World Rugby has issued a statement defending Joubert’s decision not to get the TMO involved. Apparently, under the rules/protocols, he was not entitled to call in the TMO to review a penalty decision.
In any event, and I did not see this myself, apparently upon blowing the final whistle yesterday Mr Joubert immediately sprinted 50 yards to the sanctuary of the tunnel under Twickenham’s West Stand – an act that some are saying was both against the spirit of the game of rugby and indicative of his realisation that he had made a major error, deliberately or not.
Be that as it may, it is not a happy situation because, of course, referee Joubert remains notorious for his extraordinary refereeing of the 2011 RWC Final, in which the All Blacks beat France 8-7. To put no finer point on it, arguably he failed to award penalties to France for a continual and blatant series of All Black infringements throughout the game that, particularly in the second half, certainly merited them. The outrageous undertone of this criticism is that, in acting thus on the day, Joubert was not only being deliberately biased against France but doing all he could to ensure that the home team won the game and the trophy.
For those who may not have seen it previously, here’s an example of some expert analysis upon that infamous game which makes the case against Joubert, courtesy of YouTube – 2011 RWC FINAL