The opening round of the 2019 NRL finals was dominated by touches. Well, two and a half touch-ups and one touch judge controversy, to be precise.
When rugby league convert, Clinton Schifcofske, said of his former code ‘It’s black and white and can’t be ruined by the interpretation of the referee … That’s the difference between the two games’, he revealed a lot about rugby league’s opinion of rugby, and of league’s opinion of itself.
A lot can be read into a good quote and this was a great one. Rarely does so successful a sportsman offer so candid an opinion or for that matter one that is so clearly his own. Put in context, Schifcofske briefly weighed up the relative merits of each code during an interview in which he was weighing up the future of his playing career.
Rugby’s rule book with its widely interpretable directions harkens back to its schoolboy origins and the ultimate and unquestionable authority of the schoolmaster / referee. A ramshackle coupling of rules from similar games played across a number of schools, rugby’s early rules were a compromised common ground upon which players of slightly different games could compete against each other. The resultant vagaries in rugby’s rules are thus not surprisingly partly responsible for the great divergence in styles of play seen across the world.
For example the Argentine reading of the legality of barging in the scrum, particularly at club level, differs somewhat to that of Australia’s and yet who down under would deny the Pumas their claim as excellent scrummagers? The Pacific Islanders tackle with a ferocity and disregard for safety that would be penalised in the Welsh valleys, but even the ever-whingeing Jonathon Davies couldn’t deny Brian Lima his tackling kudos. The IRB’s stance on the sanctity of the scrum stands in stark contrast to the tactics employed in French local derbies but … no, not even with my love for Gallic flair can I defend that one.
These wonderful, challenging and sometimes painful variations are perhaps the most powerful yet untapped tool of Australian rugby’s marketers to set the game apart from its competitors. What good an international game that everyone plays in exactly the same way?
Where others have seen the ruins of a game, intelligent and probing rugby minds, like that of Rod MacQueen, have found opportunities and have developed new strategies and techniques to push rugby’s boundaries. Such developments, like lifting a player in front of the goal posts to block a penalty attempt, are sometimes outlawed from the game. Others, like throwing some tape around a lineout jumper’s thighs so that the lifter may legally grip him there, become accepted and eventually essential to the way rugby is played.
Rugby’s vagaries unfortunately offer many opportunities for mistakes and deliberate manipulation by referees and touch judges. World Cup referee, Andre Watson lamented that a meeting with both Sean Fitzpatrick and Richard Harry had led him no further to advancing his understanding of the intricacies of the scrum. This casts doubt on the ability of referees of less experience and less exposure to such esteemed sources of scrummaging knowledge to correctly adjudicate on a failing scrum.
Poor refereeing of course exists in league too. However, as Schifcofske pointed out, there is significantly less room for divergent interpretations. The black and white of rugby league’s rule book is no accident nor is it the original intention of its founders. Not that long ago it was permissible under the laws of rugby league for the marker to rake the ball back with his foot during the play the ball. It was a relatively irregular occurrence but one that had the ability to cause a turnover and, if that turnover led to or prevented a try, turn a game on its head.
The legality of raking the ball was of course defined in the rule book of the time however, much like contests for possession in any sport, the interpretation of the strike’s legality was not a constant in the opinions of referees. An illegal attempt to rake the ball resulted in a penalty against the marker and this was sufficient to deter markers contesting every play the ball.
According to whichever source you trust, and much of the analysis of the origins of rugby league is written retrospectively to suit the interests of the author’s allegiance to either code, the restart of play between tackles, what we now know as the play the ball, was based upon either a scrum or a loose ruck. Interestingly modern rugby league commentators still talk about hit-ups close to the play the ball as being ‘around the ruck’ despite the distinct lack of any discernible rucking.
Rugby’s scrums and rucks are part of a continuous contest for possession that is an essential theme of the game. Rugby league has steadily moved away from this theme through a series of rule changes. Introducing a handover of possession after six tackles, restricting the ability to strip the ball during a tackle and the relaxing of scrummaging rules have all taken away opportunities for possession to be contested and reduced the importance of contesting possession both at restarts and during general play.
What these rule changes have done is to remove ambiguities from the game. Justifying these rule changes in the name of improving the entertainment value of the game assumes that a continuous contest of possession is less appealing than a guaranteed reset of play. Similarly justification in the name of simply improving the game assumes the superiority of repeated action over deliberated strategy.
Of course neither side is absolutely right nor wrong. A liberal and, lets face it, light-hearted take on anything written by Richard Dawkins goes a long way to understanding why one group find more reason to adhere to a game of continuously contested possession whilst others prefer the almost guaranteed resets of repeated action. I am not under sufficient delusion to believe myself witty or intelligent enough to take such an analogy any further but, like Dawkins, I am quite happy to openly and obstinately take a side in the argument.
As rugby’s law makers review the effects of the Stellenbosch laws and decide with which of them to take the game forward it is essential that the contest for possession must be retained and thus a degree of divergent law interpretations accepted.
Now that raking is long gone, a game of rugby league will never again be decided by a referee’s incorrect ruling in this area of play. Conversely, never again will a sneaky halfback steal the ball from a tackled, tiring front rower’s lazy play the ball. What was a quirk of the game, part of its character, is now gone.
There is now one less shade of grey in the black and white utopia of rugby league’s law makers.