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Letter of the Week

14th January 2014 16:26

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Planet Rugby readers are never short of an opinion and our mailbox is seldom empty. This week, a former referees boss gives us his thoughts on the interpretation of the advantage law.

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ADVANTAGE LAW EXTENSION
By Ricardo Bordcoch (former IRB Referees Selection Committee 2001-2005)

I feel the need to write this letter in order to address the varied interpretation regarding the extension of the law of advantage.

I do not mean only at the local or national level, but also at the international level. It is really unpredictable to ascertain to what extent the referee will enforce the rule, and I believe this is due to the laxity of the law itself.

Although it may seem humorous, as a spectator I have witnessed situations where it was not possible to remember the primary action that triggered the law of advantage because by the time it was applied the principal action happened so long ago that it was all but forgotten by just about everyone except the referee. As a result the spectators, coaches and players are forced to watch in bewilderment the referee start on a long journey in search of the approximate place where the primary infringement took place.

This makes for a break in action and momentum that results in a lacklustre spectacle. If you are viewing the game on TV it is a little more tolerable, but not always, since it all depends on the ability of the TV director to locate the precise point and focus in on the referee explaining the infraction.

In my time as a player, there was a referee from my town that would painstakingly apply the law of advantage based on an infringement that took place such a long time prior to existing play it was joked among the players that the primary infringement might as well have been in the dressing room. This was very frustrating because all this accomplished was to take away all the energy and excitement of the game.

Let's look at what the relevant part of the law states in regard to this aspect of the game:

Definitions: The Law of advantage takes precedence over most other Laws and its purpose is to make play more continuous with fewer stoppages for infringements. Players are encouraged to play to the whistle despite infringements by their opponents. When the result of an infringement by one team is that their opposing team may gain an advantage, the referee does not whistle immediately for the infringement.

8.1 Advantage in practice:
(a) The referee is sole judge of whether or not a team has gained an advantage. The referee has wide discretion when making decisions.
(b) Advantage can be either territorial or tactical.
(c) Territorial advantage means a gain in ground.
(d) Tactical advantage means freedom for the non-offending team to play the ball as they wish.

8.2 When advantage does not arise: The advantage must be clear and real. A mere opportunity to gain advantage is not enough. If the non-offending team does not gain an advantage, the referee blows the whistle and brings play back to the place of infringement

8.4 Immediate whistle when no advantage: The referee blows the whistle having determined that an advantage cannot be gained by the non-offending team.

First of all, let's be clear that the ability of a referee to exhibit good judgment and proper implementation of the rules is due to extensive training and a clear, comprehensive understanding of the game. However we are often confronted with referees who have not demonstrated this level of game mastery either as players or as coaches. This problem is further compounded when we consider that the ability to reason and make proper decisions is hindered further because the majority of the blood is focused in their legs from the great physical effort of running up and down the pitch, leaving very little reserves in the muscle most important to make these game changing decisions, the brain.

Some may respond to this by saying the same can be said about the players. They are not only subject to the same physical efforts but also to the rigours and pains of the game. However it is important to remember that in this case the responsibility for the mistake will be on the team or the player. In contrast, a mistake on behalf of a referee that changes the course of a game, season or championship ends up being unforgivable.

When one looks at the wording it is clear that it is based on Anglo-Saxon law and the principal called "common law" in contrast to the generally more detailed codex system, where the compilation of jurisprudential decisions (rulings of the judges) form an inorganic text of unquestionable equity. It is clear that the success of either depends on the quality of the judge, and in the case of rugby this is the same, if the referee does not have a good education a clear result will be inversely proportional to the end sought. In addition the "common law" is applicable only to judges with Anglo-Saxon training and not all the referees have that.

The second issue is when an advantage is clear and real. What is meant by the law? My interpretation is that the non-infringing team gains territory (territorial advantage) and preserves their play options (tactical advantage) despite the disruption generated by the offender.

The question then becomes - How much territory should be awarded to the non-infringing team? Will they be awarded several meters or just a few centimetres? Is maintaining possession of the ball after successive regroupings during which the non-infringing team retained their tactical options, but did not score any points a correct use of the advantage? Or is required that the non-infringing team scores points? And if they retained possession of the ball all the time with territorial advances, but did not use their tactical options due to bad decisions or their inability to do so and then lost possession should we back up play, and if so, to what point?

For example, if the non-offending team - in use of the advantage - decided to kick a drop and missed it, does this involve the correct use of the advantage or not? Or how many successive rucks are needed before the referee decides there has been enough time? Many other instances and hundreds of more questions come to mind but I will spare you an exhaustive list.

These questions do not have a single answer, and after observations of what happens on the field of play I dare say that those who manage the sport do not have a full idea of how to resolve the issue.

It is not good for the sport to have such a rule in particular one as important as this subject to a broad spectrum of interpretation from referee to referee. This leads to a great deal of confusion to all involved and it is desirable that there be some uniformity to the implementation. This would be very helpful to both the referee and competitors not to mention also to the spectators.

In my opinion, the law should be complemented with a concept of greater practicality which will indicate to the referee a precise point and time in which the non-infringing team could use the advantage.

In this regard, I am inclined to a solution that will insure the non-infringing team both territorial and tactical advantage all while keeping the momentum and continuity of the game by avoiding a stoppage and the referee having to cross the entire field in order to resume play.

It should indicate that: "If, despite the illicit actions of the offending team, play will be able to continue in a way that preserves any territorial gain for the non-infringing team as well as retaining their ability to run a variant of options of their choice, there will no stoppage in order to revert existing play to the primary place of infringement".

In my opinion by allowing for uniformity of the rule by outlining concrete points of where to award both tactical and territorial advantage as well as time constraints for how long the rule could be implemented and the elimination of game stoppage would help the game be more entertaining to spectators and give the game a dynamic and healthy continuity for the players.

By no longer burdening the referees with the responsibility of deciding on their own, they will now have a clear guideline of the law to follow that is much more reliable than the weak-willed human interpretation.

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