Loose Pass: A burning referee issue, set piece clocks and questions of depth
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a burning referee issue, set piece clocks and questions of depth…
Loose Pass enjoyed the events of Saturday with at least one fan from of each of the Six Nations. There were debates, questions, cheers, jeers, jokes and, ultimately, congratulations all around – a cracking day of rugby camaraderie. And at the end of it all, each and every person in the bar agreed on two things: Ireland were worthy winners and Freddie Steward’s red card was a travesty.
It didn’t take long (less than 24 hours in fact) for a Youtube video to start doing the rounds which not only dealt with Steward’s expulsion but also looked in reasonable detail at a number of other incidents throughout the tournament which called into question the consistency of officials (and this column will not end up singularly targeting officials by the way, be patient).
The video, entitled ‘The Death of Rugby’ and over 11 minutes long, pores through a number of incidents throughout the tournament which could, or could not, or were, or were not, cardworthy, or not. We see comparable incidents, including Steward’s red card contrasted with Hugo Keenan colliding with Damian Penaud earlier in the tournament, Gael Fickou’s tip tackle on Alun Wyn Jones contrasted with Jack Willis upending Ross Byrne, two aerial collisions in the Italy v Wales game, the elbows to the chest/throat by Italy’s Pierre Bruno and Scotland’s Pierre Schoeman. It concludes with Mohamad Haouas’ Superman flight into the head of Ben White, clipped up against James Ryan flying into a ruck and thumping a trapped Maro Itoje’s head with his shoulder.
All of the incidents are comparable, all are also individually nuanced. Anyone could argue, with the probable exception of Haouas’ red card (which nearly wasn’t) for and against most of the calls with a reasonable level of credibility.
The point of the video is to highlight the inconsistency of many of the decisions, which are nearly all made with the benefit of a TMO review and replays of the incidents observed numerous times by the entire officiating team. And yes, the decisions do come across as inconsistent.
But what comes across most of all is the officials’ disunity in deciding where thresholds lie, not least when ‘the process’ comes up against both common sense and elite rugby experience. In more than half of the clips, there is, to coin a phrase, clear and obvious disagreement on whether a contact was dangerous or not. Players are looking bewildered – some of it maybe showy affrontery but there are moments when there is nothing but pure confusion.
The point is not that the officials are not unanimous or consistent, the point is that it is close to impossible to get unanimity and consistency, never mind to decide whether contact is dangerous or not. Jaco Peyper looked as sheepish as he has ever looked when explaining why he felt the need to send Steward packing; the conflict between the World Rugby head contact/tackle technique protocols and the inevitable collisions inherent to rugby clearly contesting a hard-fought maul within his own head.
The disjointedness in the communication between Nika Amushekeli and his co-officials when reviewing Haouas’ charge, the same between the TMO and Damon Murphy in the Italy v Wales game, the rejection of assistant Jordan Way’s communication that Keenan’s contact with Penaud be reviewed, all go to show that officials continue to have the devil of a time implementing protocols which mete out liability for things which happen almost unavoidably. The only trend Loose Pass can find in it all is that the opinions of officials such as Karl Dickson and Nick Berry, who played the game at the top level, tend to be more understanding about the rugby within the framework of the protocols and less about rigidly following protocol.
Is this an officiating issue? We don’t think so. This process where players are being vilified for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as Steward was, or being caught out by the vaguaries of advantage as Steward also was, or being caught out by the powerful force and speed dynamics of a contact situation as many a player has been this season, is clearly not reducing concussion rates (how many HIAs were failed this Six Nations?) and is making the game less of a spectacle for the initiated, even more confusing for the uninitiated and is turning referees into unwitting villains of the piece.
Referees can look and learn from their own performances, none were perfect this tournament. But the current climate in which they officiate is as awkward as it has ever been and the lawmakers and reviewers need to look at their performance too.
Red card for Freddie Steward pic.twitter.com/N6nVNx2qQN
— RugbyLAD (@RugbyLAD7) March 18, 2023
Set piece clocks?
In the end it didn’t matter as Scotland scored a wonder try to kill the game off. But Loose Pass – and a couple of impassioned Italians, both were perturbed by the length of time it took to set the final scrum in the Scotland and Italy game. It was well over a minute by the time Angus Gardner called ‘Set’ from the moment the scrum had been awarded – with the clock, of course, in the red by the end.
Too long? Scrums take too long anyway, this time usage was simply exacerbated by the game situation. But – and this point was made last week – a simple limit on the amount of time a set piece could take would eradicate a significant portion of gamesmanship from the game.
It wouldn’t even need the referee’s input. All it would need is, say, the timekeeper to stop the clock 45 seconds from the moment a set piece is awarded and restart it again only when the ball is put into the scrum/thrown into the line-out/kicked/tapped/whatever. A lot better for the game as a spectacle than waiting for teams to waste as much time as possible.
The unanswered depth questions
One of the talking points most raised from this tournament was the depth apparent now in both Ireland and France’s ranks, which should stand them in good stead come the World Cup.
All fair analysis, but the real questions about depth only get answered in those World Cup final stages. Ireland will cope for a match in which their hookers get crocked for a final half-hour, but what if Jonny Sexton or Antoine Dupont is injured early in the World Cup and ruled out for the remainder? Which players could emerge to carry a team through the World Cup’s final stages against the best in the World? Does either side have a Stephen Donald?
In that context, we found it curious that neither Mathieu Jalibert nor Maxime Lucu got more time in this Six Nations for France. Consistency is definitely key, but while Ireland nicked the title, the questions about depth which they provided rough answers to will be, we reckon, the most important ones they answered.
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