It’s been a busy weekend, with the first full round of Super Rugby and another set of matches in the Six Nations. And with it, matches had both a critical point and key refereeing decisions, that invited a high level of scrutiny.
For some, the decision to red card the Reds’ Scott Higginbotham on Friday night; but not the Crusaders Michael Alaalatoa on Saturday, for forceful contact with the head is contentious [Alaalatoa earned a yellow only].
In the Northern hemisphere, some are questioning the reasoning behind the law that saw England denied a try against Scotland. The ball was ruled to have gone forward –unintentionally – off Courtney Lawes’ arm as he made a tackle.
However the decision that’s generated the most discussion, came in the 71st minute of the second New Zealand Super Rugby derby blockbuster of the weekend. A critical game, the Crusaders v Chiefs in Christchurch.
Crusaders attack leads to Contentious Ref’s call
Having regained the lead minutes earlier; through skipper Sam Whitelock, the Crusaders were hot on the Chiefs goal line. After replacement halfback Mitchell Drummond was repelled, veteran midfielder Ryan Crotty gathered the ball and dived for the corner only to seemingly be denied by Chiefs flanker Lachlan Boshier.
However, the TV replays showed why. Watching from the 3 minute, 10 second point, the above video shows Boshier tackling Crotty – who was less than a meter above the ground – around the neck. The result was Crotty left prone on the ground, from the impact and apparent strain placed on the neck.
After consultation with the TMO Aaron Paterson, referee Ben O’Keeffe determined that it was both a penalty try and a yellow card to Boshier. His questions included “it is foul play, if it’s a high tackle. He’s in the process of scoring, so I’ve got a penalty try.”
And that proved critical, where the Crusaders beat the Chiefs by 45-23 in another absorbing local derby match.
Illegal Act deemed to earn Penalty Try, and Yellow Card
Resident referee Scott MacLean looks at the decision in itself. To begin with, it has been a longstanding law of rugby that you can’t tackle around the neck. Highlighted more so in recent years and the starting point for any corresponding sanction raised. While Crotty was very low to the ground, it’s still illegal to tackle this way.
So firstly we have an instance of foul play (Law 9.13).
Secondly: a penalty try must be awarded if foul play prevents a probable try being scored (Law 8.3). The current interpretation is that if a player commits an act of foul play, they are removed completely from the equation – as if they didn’t exist.
Dubbed the ‘invisible man theory’ it was also applied in last year’s France vs All Blacks test match in Paris. Then, Sonny Bill Williams slapped the ball dead in the in-goal – his actions mimicking a rugby league defensive tactic. He was given a yellow card for the action, and a penalty try was applied, as the attacking player–with no other player present–would probably have scored. Big matches, such as the Crusaders v Chiefs, or France v New Zealand, come under the same rulings and verdicts.
In essence, the same was applied in Christchurch – remove Boshier from the picture, and Crotty scores.
So following that process, we’ve established there is foul play and that without the player who committed the foul play act, Crotty would have likely scored. So a penalty try is the proper outcome.
The additional sanction for Boshier and his side also comes from Law 8.3 that requires that a guilty player must either be cautioned and temporarily suspended (yellow carded), or sent off (red card), and in that regard referee O’Keeffe was correct.
Crusaders v Chiefs reaction – Penalty Try ruling
On TV, the immediate reaction of pundits Justin Marshall and Jeff Wilson was that it was harsh. They asked just ‘what Boshier was meant to do in that situation?’
That was also repeated on several online Crusaders v Chiefs live blogs at the time. As well, across social media, fans and current players made their interpretations well known.
…..if you want to score a try now days it's just dive real low and it will be a penalty try and yellow card ?? what else can the d do?
— Elliot Wikaira Dixon (@MaoriGC) February 24, 2018
While it seems likely that SANZAAR referee’s boss Lyndon Bray will get asked some questions this week – as the process illustrated by Wales recently shows – the answer is that Boshier needed to get lower himself. His attempted tackle had to be ‘below the shoulders’ to comply with current interpretation.
Some aspects of the process followed by referee O’Keeffe – such as the ‘invisible man’ approach, and the double-sanction of the penalty try AND yellow card – maybe topics overall that need review by World Rugby. But, for all officials and stakeholders, they are what the officials have to follow right now.
If the critical points of games are slowed down to 32 frames per second, many actions will appear illegal. What can also infuriate the viewer, is that assumptions can be made, so that if the impeding player then becomes invisible, of course the try could have been scored [zero defence].
The greater; and more critical, point though is that the game has changed. That as much as players and coaches continue to adapt to it, the understanding and attitudes of commentators and the general rugby public, need to as well.