Professional rugby has brought many things. Some good – some not so good. One of the very good things is the emphasis on playing fairly and cleanly.
In days of old, it would be difficult to be sent from the rugby field no matter what you did.
Thankfully, the game has been cleaned up and acts of thuggery and cowardice have largely disappeared from the rugby landscape. There is simply no place for barbaric gutless acts of thuggery in the modern game.
But have we gone too far?
The yellow card system is designed for infringements that do not warrant a send-off but are sufficiently grave enough for a player to be temporarily sent from the field of play.
This places enormous power in and responsibility on a referee.
In the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi-final between Australia and Argentina, we saw Pumas lock Tomas Lavanini given a yellow card by referee Stuart Barnes as a result of a misjudged low tackle on Wallabies fullback Israel Folau.
This was a ridiculous decision and even more incredulous given that it was made after it went to the TMO. It was also not a dangerous tackle, nor was Lavanini purposely failing to use his arms when attempting to tackle a high stepping Folau.
Whether or not this decision would have changed the result of that particular match had it not been made is now academic. The point is, it most certainly can do so, and it will be a tragedy if the upcoming World Cup final is won or lost as the result of a referee’s decision to sin bin a player for actions that would warrant a penalty at best.
Similarly, in the World Cup quarter-final between Australia and Scotland, we saw another silly decision in the yellow carding of Scottish winger Sean Maitland for a deliberate knock down of the ball, when clearly this was not the case.
After intervention from the TMO, referee Craig Joubert deemed that Maitland deliberately knocked the ball down and gave him a yellow card.
Moments later the Wallabies scored through Drew Mitchell in the spot where Maitland should have been defending and allowed Australia to hit the lead.
Under World Rugby rules, the TMO can only be called into play for:
• Determining the grounding of the ball in goal for a try, and/or whether players were out of the field of play before the grounding;
• Determining whether a kick at goal has been successful;
• Confirming an infringement has occurred in the build up to a try or prevention of a try within two phases of the try, and;
• Considering acts of possible foul play.
The problem is that without such a system, abuse of the rules would be rife. Certain players at world class level are masters at appearing to do one thing when in fact their goal is the complete opposite. If the referee cannot use a yellow card to punish such actions, teams employing such tactics will gain an unfair advantage.
After all, discipline is a key aspect of rugby. Failure to exhibit it is an action that justifiably warrants a reaction from the referee – but not an overreaction.
So what, if anything, should be done?
Firstly, we need to minimise the role of the TMO. Referees seem hell-bent on going to the TMO at every contentious point in the game, and the role of the assistant referees appears to be less and less. After watching a number of Rugby World Cup matches where defending teams are clearly not behind the last man’s feet in the ruck, I remain at a loss to understand why the assistant referees do not even appear to be policing the offside lines.
Perhaps we can learn something from our friends in America.
In American football, the head referee looks at review incidents himself, on a monitor rather than on the big screen, and he is seen to be the sole judge of fact.
In rugby, Law 6A.4 states that: “The referee is the sole judge of fact and of law during a match.”
By forcing the referee to make the call and not abdicating this responsibility to the TMO, the adjudication remains where it should – with the referee. If he gets it wrong after watching the review, so be it. At least he backs his own judgment, rather than relying on a ‘recommendation’ from the TMO.
On the other hand, this does mean the referee may be influenced by hostile crowd environments. They are human after all.
Secondly, we could give the TMO the right to review contentious decisions made in the last two minutes of the game, as is the case in American football.
Thirdly, in addition or alternatively, rules could be amended to bring in a captain’s right to challenge a referee’s decision.
In American football, each coach is allowed two opportunities per game to make a coach’s challenge.
A challenge can only be made on certain reviewable calls on plays and with other ‘time-out’ conditions pertinent to the game.
The referee has 60 seconds to watch the instant replay of the play and decide if the original call was correct. The referee must see “incontrovertible visual evidence” for a call to be overturned. If the challenge fails, the original ruling stands and the challenging team is penalised with a lost ‘timeout’.
If the challenge overrules the previous call, the call is reversed, and should there have been an official score change, the score will be changed again, resulting in the original score and with no loss of a timeout.
Because of the limited number of challenges, and the possible penalty of a lost timeout, coaches typically reserve their challenges for key plays.
In rugby, a failed challenge could result in loss of yardage or some other such penalty, such as the loss of one of the rights to challenge.
In American football, a questionable call may not be challenged once the next play is underway, so coaches may be forced to make a quick decision without the benefit of seeing a replay on television or on the stadium screen.
In rugby, a similar rule not allowing a questionable call to be challenged once the next play is underway, could also be implemented to ensure the game is not slowed down by the offending team.
A captain’s challenge may have saved Scotland from being defeated by Australia in the quarter-final and would have given referee Joubert the opportunity to review his initial decision. It may also have saved Joubert from the torrent of abuse that has been unjustly levelled at him – irrespective of the correctness or otherwise of his decision.
As rugby fans we should be better than that.