World Rugby Refereeing needs more Continuity and Consistency

COVENTRY, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: Owen Farrell of Saracens is shown a yellow card by referee Wayne Barnes during the Aviva Premiership match between Wasps and Saracens at The Ricoh Arena on January 7, 2018 in Coventry, England. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

It seems that every week we are talking more and more about refereeing decisions. More and more games appear to hang on a blow of the referees’ whistle.  Be this a sending or a penalty awarded in the dying moments of a game, the talking points after a weekend’s rugby are now more than ever dominated by the officials’ decisions instead of the rugby itself.  What is clear is that World Rugby refereeing needs more continuity and consistency.

This will never totally go away, contentious refereeing decision will always be a part of rugby. Let’s not also forget that referees do have a very difficult job and mistakes are inevitable However, there needs to be an attempt to bring refereeing interpretations into line.

It seems that from competition to competition officials’ interpretations are getting further apart not closer together. It effects the way teams prepare and play matches. Coaches now know that playing the referee effectively is crucial winning a match. Here at Last Word On Rugby we will be looking at why these problems have arisen and how it can be improved upon.

High Tackle Laws

The new interpretations of the high tackle laws have caused much controversy over the past few months. We have seen a number of games decided because of them with a number of red cards given out and lots of penalties awarded.

Although to begin with fans, players and coaches alike were somewhat resistant to the changes at first, it appears they are beginning to come around to the principle of the changes. The larger issue is the consistency of the decision making. A good example is when Munster played Gloucester at Thomond Park recently and Danny Cipriani was red carded. Although the decision in itself was not a problem, it killed the game as a contest. However, later in the game there were a couple of other instances where high tackles went unpunished.

Furthermore, the laws seem to be applied differently from competition to competition. We saw them stringently applied in the Champions Cup whilst this past weekends’ internationals appear to be less focused on them. This discrepancy from competition to competition is what makes it hard for fans as well as players to understand.

Northern and Southern Hemisphere ‘divide’

The game in the Northern Hemisphere is at times almost unrecognizable from the Southern Hemisphere. This is in no small part down to the way it’s refereed. Super Rugby places much less emphasis on the breakdown as a contest. Instead the focus in a fast-paced game aiming to maximize tries and attacking opportunity. Conversely the Premiership or the Pro 14 referee the ruck very differently. Giving defensive teams a much bigger chance to steal the ball.

This means when it comes to an international match the geography of the referee can have a big say in the match. Southern Hemisphere sides are likely to have a distinct advantage if the referee also is from the Southern Hemisphere and vice versa for Northern Hemisphere teams. This type of discrepancy does not exist in any other sport and it really should not be found in rugby even despite the complexities of its laws.

Championship Cup new law Trial

This season, the Championship Cup are trialing a changing the tackle height from the shoulders to below the armpit. Again, in principle, this is a good idea in order to help reduce concussion and to improve player welfare. However, the way this trial has manifested itself is very irregular.

This season Championship players will play three-quarters of their games under the current laws. Then spend a quarter of their season adapting to new ones. This same difficulty applies to referees, as they will have to officiate under one set of laws one week then a different set the next. This means players will have to change their technique from week to week as will referees.

How World Rugby expect this to be a fair trial is almost unbelievable. What would have made a lot more sense is to roll out this trial for all competitions for the entirety of the season. This would have meant players and referees would be able to apply a consistent approach throughout the season. Rather than having to change from week to week. The trial is likely to result in a number of inconsistencies, a lot of penalties and a number of cards. This will most likely infuriate fans, players and coaches.

Solutions – Introduction of World Rugby Calendar and greater Collaboration

World Rugby can help solve these issues in their game. The introduction of the long-awaited World Rugby Calendar may be a great help to the way the game is officiated. In theory a global rugby season should allow for Word Rugby to align their referees much more effectively.

However, to do this they need to commit to greater collaboration and continuity amongst referees. Currently, referees work within their competition which allows different competitions to have different interpretations. So Premiership, Pro14 and Super Rugby referees only come together for international or Champions Cup windows.

Understandably this is difficult to achieve in practice but if World Rugby wants consistent officiating, they need to find a way to bring these referees together more often in order to create consistent officiating.

Continuity and Consistency – LWOR Conclusion

All fans, players, and coaches want is consistency. That’s not what we are getting.

It is not even really the referees’ fault. The number of different interpretations and directives makes what is a very difficult job even harder. With the Rugby World Cup less than a year away, fans just hope we are treated to a festival of rugby in Japan rather, than a competition marred by contentious refereeing decisions.

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