Loose Pass: Referee running lines and a job for the mentally tough

Lawrence Nolan
A screenshot of referee Ian Tempest and Alex Dombrandt and Eddie Jones.

Referee Ian Tempest and Alex Dombrandt and Eddie Jones.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with referee positioning and a nice job on offer…

Tempest at centre of a storm

A crucial moment in a game can be decided by a referee at the best of times, but Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt was left seething on Saturday after falling foul of referee Ian Tempest’s running line, of all things.

Everybody saw it. The match commentators weren’t quite sure what to do with it; Lawrence Dallaglio was, after a moment’s pause, quite explicit that he thought the whistle should have been blown, and as Leicester progressed downfield, the mutterings of controversy grew and grew.

The ball had looped over the end of a Harlequins line-out, with Dombrandt reacting quickly enough that you got the impression the throw might have been planned. Dombrandt tore around the end of the line-out anyway, while Mr. Tempest, who was on the end of the line-out (a fairly standard position for a referee), tore around the Harlequins side of the line-out to get away from the ball.

The two collided, dropping Dombrandt to his knees and sending the poor official to the ground in a sprawling tangle of limbs.

What was lost in all the kerfuffle was that as the ball landed, it was cleanly gathered initially by Harlequins centre Lennox Anyanwu, who was hit hard, but did not do a good job of protecting the ball. Furthermore, the incident in question occurred some 55m from the Harlequins line, 55m, which it took Leicester seven strong phases to cover before Freddie Steward limped over in the corner.

Anyway, the further point is that the referee did not need to do anything.

A higher-profile incident than this occurred five years ago in a match between New Zealand and France. On that occasion, the referee’s contact was more egregious to the defender, with John Lacey retreating from a ball that had squirted untidily from the back of a scrum and cutting off the ability of Baptiste Serin to defend. Damian McKenzie went straight through and scored.

Mr. Lacey did consult the TMO on that occasion, but both agreed the try should have been awarded.

The relevant law, Law 6.10/11/12, only talks about either the ball or the ball carrier touching the referee; there is no explicit law concerning collisions between the referee and non-ball-carrying players. You do sometimes see collisions where the referee stops play, but that is often because we are dealing with a referee being thundered into by dozens of kilos of fast-moving muscle, and he needs to get his breath back. But Dombrandt was not the ball carrier, and so this is simply a bit of bad luck.

The reality is that the referee needs to be in positions which are, by necessity, not very far from the ball. Accidents do happen; considering how close the referee has to be to the ball all the time, it’s a bit of a wonder that they don’t happen more often.

A referee in the way in a case like this has no law to help the “obstructed” player, any more than there is a way for a referee to act against the perverse bounce of a rugby ball. And while Dombrandt can justifiably feel frustrated, introducing a law to help players in his position could surely lead to players ‘accidentally running into referees’ far more often, a grey area we absolutely do not need.

Any takers?

It’s not a well-kept secret that rugby in the USA has had a bit of a rough ride the past few years. Bankruptcy, failure to qualify for the World Cup, a fledgling professional league with strong growing pains.

But suppose you’ve oodles of mental toughness, a well-curated network within the game, a gift for selling a dream that is currently very distant and ill-defined, a spare decade, an ability to conjure up sponsors with deep pockets and a penchant for thin, fresh mountain air. In that case, USA Rugby has the job for you.

An anticipated $300,000 paycheque is on offer to the successful candidate for the next CEO of USA Rugby: whoever is chosen will have to ensure that both men’s and women’s programs get up to speed quickly and deliver successful World Cups in 2031 and 2033, as well as properly growing a game that has a tremendous culture there but is dwarfed by its helmet-and-pad-toting cousin.

Given the struggles USA Rugby has had over the past few years, you’d be forgiven for considering the job a potential one-way ticket to ignominious failure, but the newest incarnation of professional rugby in the USA is now in its sixth season, with expansion teams to boot and no more faddish team-names created by ego-swilling Australian dudebros. There are more American players in the league now, too; no longer is it merely a retirement playground for long-in-the-tooth Rugby Championship players. The women’s game is not as strong as it once was, but it is not weak either.

A big opportunity awaits: wait… isn’t Eddie Jones free at the moment?

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