Monday, October 19, 2015

Rugby, referees, rules and reviews

So the inquest into Northern Hemisphere rugby has begun alongside varying degrees of outrage over last minute refereeing decisions. There had to be one, or in this case at least two, controversial moments before the final whistle of the weekend.

To be honest, Gavin Hastings comments about the way the referee sprinted from the field were the most telling. I've played, watched and spent a fair amount of time on the touchline and, at the end of the game no matter how the players might feel about the officials, they have always shaken hands. So it was a surprise that he left as he did. As to the two notable moments of controversy, the yellow card for a deliberate knock-on is really not that controversial, no matter what I've heard some  commentators say. Unless the rules have changed significantly, if you go for an interception with one hand you are going to be judged to have not tried to catch the ball. It may be instinctive, but until they change the definition it will almost always be seen as deliberate.

As to the penalty. TV replays in high definition are all well and good, but we all know that the referee has to make a call based on what he sees. It's been splashed all over the media that the rules don't allow a referral to the TMO, so technically there's no argument for it. At the beginning of the tournament there was a lot of moaning about overuse of the TMO, and there have been times when referees have appeared to be over-cautious about decisions. You simply can't win. And just to clarify, as far as I'm aware, the referee had to decide whether he thought the Australian player had tried to play the ball or not. If it hits him from the Scotland knock-on then the player who picked up the ball is still offside. If he plays the ball intentionally, then the player is not offside. Would you have been able to judge that in the split second available? I think that's why the players would feel robbed, but ultimately accepting of the decision. On of the things that you notice in rugby is that referees generally are willing to explain their decisions and tell players what they saw.

But what about Northern Hemisphere rugby then? There will lots of talk no doubt about looking to the South to learn lessons, there will be talk about coaches and conditions, skills and the number of games played. I don't know what the answer is, but a careful look at Argentina might not be a bad place to start. I wonder how different it might have been had they been included in the Six Nations rather than the Rugby Championship? Watching them against Ireland they seemed to look for space at every opportunity but not carelessly. They were still massively competitive up front, but they seemed to have learnt how to play rugby across the full width of the pitch. A lot of this has probably been learnt from playing the likes if of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa on a regular basis.

The thing that has once again marked out the best teams from the others has been the speed the ball is recycled, the way the least number of players needed at the break down commit, and the width of the game. By contrast, the likes of England were slow and static, with little imagination. They simply weren't good enough.

Going on this World Cup, the Six Nations could be very interesting. A resurgent Scotland could be a real threat to Wales and Ireland, and England, unless things change dramatically, could be struggling if they are not careful.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Where now for England Rugby?

No doubt the papers will be full of analysis of England's failure to qualify for the knock-out phase of the Rugby World Cup. There have already been some lengthy interviews with much hand wringing and talk of new lows in the aftermath of losing to Australia on Saturday evening. But let's get a bit of perspective here.

Firstly, it is only a game. Yes it's disappointing, but it's not a disaster. Australia were a far better team, more clinical in attack and dominating at the breakdown and set piece. It's hard to argue with their victory. Secondly, Wales did a fantastic job of staying in the game the previous week, pushing England into errors and eventually getting ahead and holding on to the lead. The way they defended the rolling maul in the last minute was a lesson in getting yourself organised when you know what's coming!

As for all the questions about the decision not to kick the penalty, I actually think it was a courageous choice that didn't work out rather than simply the wrong choice. I think England should be praised for putting it all on the line and Wales should get credit for defending the play in the way they did.

We all knew going into this tournament that the group stage was going to end in disappointment for one the top five teams in the competition. It happens to be England. It's tough, but there it is. Other big teams have suffered in the past. Wales themselves know only too well how it feels to go out in the group stages ('91, '95 and '07). Nothing is guaranteed. Just because we happen to be the host nation is rather less important.

I hope that any review is not a search for someone to blame and if Stuart Lancaster is to be replaced, then I hope this is done with dignity, a proper appreciation for what he's achieved, and without a sense of panic.