More than halfway through the regular season and the referee crackdown continues. I know this because the Channel Nine commentary team are still banging on about it for half of every game.
There is a feeling that rather than pushing their own barrow throughout our viewing experience, they really should start talking a bit more about the game in front of them if they want the viewers’ experience to go beyond ‘I watch Nine because I don’t have Foxtel’, but at some point after the horse had been flogged into a bloody pulp, I considered their point (yes, thereby justifying their persistence).
The issues as I see them are, firstly, that teams are giving away professional fouls in order to slow play and set their defence. The logic is that they’d rather defend a full set after a breather and with an organised line rather than a couple of tackles without either. Teams have also been creeping up offside, playing on the refs’ willingness to penalise and their preference to let things flow.
In response, we have seen the ‘crackdown’. While many applaud the consistent enforcing of the rules, the complaint is it prevents fatigue entering the game and rewards the defence by turning the situation to one that suits them rather than the attacking team. The situation is at its peak on the goal-line, where risk from disorganisation is higher but organisation has a greater benefit due to fullbacks playing in the line and the full 10 metres not being required.
Given this, the temptation of two guaranteed points is too high in most cases and so we get a minute’s break while there’s a shot for goal, which exacerbates the issue.
Finally, the big stick the refs have is to send someone to the bin, and we then see players strolling off the field at a comically slow pace, allowing their mates to be nice and fresh.
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So what are we to do? The game must enforce its rules, but we all want to see the type of free-running and skilful tries that occur when defences get tired and disorganised.
So how can we keep consequence for breaking the rules while minimising stoppages and keeping the flow of the game so fatigue is still a factor?
Firstly, the warning.
For minor indiscretions like minimal offsides, laying in the ruck a little too long, hands on the ball etc, the ref calls out “Warning – offside” (or whatever is relevant).
A team gets one warning (for any reason) in a set and the second one gets penalised. This will get rid of the penalties for little mistakes while maintaining a consequence and a motivation to try to do it right.
I’d retain the right of the refs to penalise particularly blatant breaking of the rules.
Secondly, introduce play the ball restarts if we can’t have quick taps.
The reason we can’t have quick taps for every penalty is that refs feel there is an issue for ten-metre offside penalties and penalties within ten metres of the tryline.
Whether the reason is because the defence is too disadvantaged being around the advantage line or the refs can’t get organised to police the new offside line, the upshot is it’s about not having enough time. The simple fix is to allow a zero-tackle play of the ball restart immediately after the mark is given for all penalties.
The slightly more time taken to play the ball would be enough to solve the problem, while allowing the flow to continue every time.