The Men In The Middle

Referees are everywhere. They are in the park. They are in your classroom. They inhabit every boozer and drinking hole that has a TV in the corner. Everyone knows the rules better than the man in the middle.

So during this World Cup there have been some public outpourings of vitriol directed at the real match officials. These men can rarely stand up for themselves and they are in the most exposed situation they could ever imagine. This is the most televised rugby event in history and they are right there in the mix, regularly disappointing one large section of the crowd.

Sure we all have our opinions about what should be done on the park. Everyone thinks they are the first to say “Richie McCaw gets away with Murder!” Many people over the age of 35 seem to pick up on the fact that the scrum feed in modern rugby is “always squint”. Regular commenter Old Whistler told me that he sees breakdown blockers and the length of time the ball can sit at the back of a ruck as key problems that need redressed by officials.

My own real issue is with the way players at this World Cup have been diving in to rucks. During the Canada versus France game, for example, many claimed that the North Americans were combative and competitive at the breakdown and deserved to turnover so much ball because they had wrested it from the French. What I saw was the Canadians piling in and going off their feet at several of those breakdowns. There were not too many penalties against Canada there.

Of course refereeing is, like the game itself, more professional now than it ever has been. Systems are in place to rate, manage and educate referees, assistants and TMOs. Officials can be fast-tracked. They will never publicly criticise each other, but have internal dialogues and reviews and each union has their own hyper-competitive stable of referees hoping to step up to international level.

With such pressures and increased television coverage it is impossible for referees to escape scrutiny. Sometimes it is warranted. Much of the time it is not. Bryce Lawrence, for example cut a very unpopular figure in his first few games, if message boards and Twitter were to be believed. He didn’t really make any glaring errors, though.

Someone who did, though, was Wayne Barnes. He called James Hook’s penalty attempt wide, even as it was in, and he has been crucified for it. However, according to Ref from RefBlog, “whatever the rights and wrongs of the Hook penalty, he relied on the experts who were watching the ball from the perfect spot. It’s very rare for refs with assistants to be in line with the kick. They tend to be more in field.

“In this case, the ARs (Vinny Munro and George Clancy) said no – and given that Clancy refers anything and everything upstairs, if there had been doubt the TMO would have been called in. They weren’t, so Wayne didn’t.”

A valid point but one few rugby fans would take time to consider. Indeed few fans would take time to consider anything other than what their preconceived ideas of a completely legal game are. The difficulty is that, with a more professional approach, referees will have to fall in line with certain directives. They must focus on specific infringements as dictated by Paddy O’Brien and his panel of experts.

The areas of focus are listed thusly, according to Ref:

* The breakdown: the tackler must roll away and the assisting tackler must release, whilst arriving players must come through the gate.

* The scrum engagement: Collision must be observed and Loose-Head binding supervised.

* Offside line – strict policing of offside players close to the breakdown.

* Mauls – the ball-carrier must be available to be tackled by the defending team.

* Foul play – high tackles, grabbing and twisting of the head and tip tackles are all to be looked out for.

Few would disagree with these. Have the referee’s been meeting these standards, though? That is a matter of opinion. It is also a matter of whether or not the players make an issue of tailoring their performances.

“I think the breakdown has been much clearer than expected,” states Ref. “ There is the issue you mentioned of arriving players going off their feet, (note this isn’t in O’Brien’s 5 priorities), but you have to look at the speed of the breakdown and then the impact of their actions.

“Arriving at speed into something is going to cause you to aim at the ground. But the question we referees have to face is “has that action prevented competition for the ball, or prevented the defending side of attacking for a possible turnover.” I think the speed of the game often makes that a “no” so the issue is “should you penalise” or manage.

“Thanks to the poor TV coverage we’re being handed out by ITV, we aren’t getting the option to listen to the ref and hear him managing – I’m convinced they would be doing it but we don’t see it or hear it.”

We rarely take time to consider how it is in the middle. We just assume that our view is the right one. Referees do not have the gift of omniscience, nor do we. Consider this though:

“We have to remember that, just like the players, the 10 referees are also looking to progress to the knockout stages. They have to perform, try and stay away from controversy and to make sure they adhere to the bosses instructions. Easier said than done given that the World is watching! As spectators we have no qualms about giving some leeway to the players and sides through the pool games – just look at England’s first 2 games…”

Rory is the editor of Scottish Rugby Blog, and has offered a fan's view on Scottish Rugby since founding the blog.

5 responses to this article

  1. Malc said:

    According to your article:

    “The areas of focus are listed thusly, according to Ref:

    (…) * Offside line – strict policing of offside players close to the breakdown.”

    So how, in the dying minutes of a match poised on a knife edge, when you know a team is going to attempt a drop goal and the defence will try to charge it down, is your back to the defensive line at that point, and you subsequently miss the most obvious offside rush ever?

    I don’t like to criticise referees too much, but I did a basic refereeing course, and one of the first things I was taught was positioning yourself at the ruck to see the ruck and the defensive line at the same time. Wayne Barnes has made another massive high profile error here. The IRB – by their own standards – should be considering his position.

  2. Andy said:

    Aye…good one Marc…Ref makes a mistake and should be sacked!!!

    Should we sack Patterson for misisng that tackle too??

    Numpty!!!

  3. Malc said:

    Who is Marc? And Paterson has 1 “t”.

    Look, I don’t deny Scotland’s lack of tackling/ concentration led to Argentina taking the lead. But we were still in a position to win the match when the ref turned his back. That’s not good enough at this level.

  4. Andy said:

    Thanks for the spelling lesson Mike!

    The RWC referee panel is as follows:
    Wayne Barnes (England)
    Romain Poite (France)
    Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
    Craig Joubert (South Africa)
    Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
    George Clancy (Ireland)
    Nigel Owens (Wales)
    Alain Rolland (Ireland)
    Dave Pearson (England)
    Steve Walsh (Australia)

    Every one of these refs have, at some point made a mistake of similar or greater magnitude to WB’s call in the Argentina game. Using your rationale, all of these guys should therefore be removed from top level refereeing…..and will be repleced by who exactly????

  5. Malc said:

    Did I say “removed from top level refereeing”? What I said was “considering his position” – ie, don’t give him a later-round match at the RWC. They haven’t given him a quarter, which suggests they might have recognised his error.

    Look, I don’t expect refs to be perfect. But as I say, this was a basic error – and its not like his first big mistake in big RWC matches. New Zealand and Wales would probably give evidence to that end.

    When players make mistakes, they get dropped. I don’t see why the referees can’t be held to the same standard – especially since this was one of the areas in which refs were supposed to be focusing on in this RWC.

    Does that sound fair?