The thing about consistency, so the grand old saying goes, is that you have to do it all the time.
And while the introduction of video technology into the various professional levels of the game has allowed referees, assistant referees, television match officials, and even judiciary officers a greater ability to make the game safer from foul play perspective, the use of video technology in such a focussed way has also allowed a whole new level of scrutiny on these same officials and their decisions.
Someone watching the game at home now has access to replay technology down the frame, and all in high-definition. All conversations and decision processes between the on-field referees and his assistants are clearly audible, as are any ‘check-check’ interjections from the TMO.
So while things are being picked up in games to a degree never previously used, that same technology allows the home viewer – equipped with their social media platform of choice and the Laws of the Game – a voice on how the game if being officiated to all new levels as well.
Indeed, these very pages would enjoy far less traffic is said technology was not in place. Very few of us would study the Laws of the Game to the same extent we didn’t see specific incidents replayed.
Back at the start of the season, I was somewhat shocked to the see overwhelming agreement to my suggestion that referees handing out cards don’t ruin games, players committing the infringements that earn said cards ruin games. Followed by coaches who issue the instructions, commentators who blow up about the cards, and then the fans who whinge about not getting value for their money.
At the time, Queensland Reds captain Scott Higginbotham had accepted a three-week ban with an early plea for his crude shoulder charge into the head of Melbourne Rebels lock Matt Philip.
And when viewed alongside the 2017 examples of Sonny Bill Williams and Sekope Kepu, Higginbotham’s suspension was on par by any measure you’d like to employ.
I imagined it being a somewhat contentious column when writing it, but the universal response was clear: it was a red card, it didn’t ruin the game, and that same infringement must remain a red card going forward. If we’re going to be consistent about these things, then the cards have to keep coming out until players and coaches (and yes, commentators and fans too) get the message.
How many times since then, however, have you heard or read or thought, “if Higginbotham got three weeks, why didn’t [insert infringing player here] get the same thing?”
And this is really to the heart of the matter. It’s not red or yellow cards that ruin games and frustrate everyone, it’s when something was a red or yellow card at one point, but suddenly isn’t the next.
Consistency of decision-makers will never ruin the game. But inconsistency might.
On Friday night, I was astounded to see referee Paul Williams rule that Rebels’ winger Jack Maddocks clattering into, and then pulling Higginbotham down from the apex of his jump for the ball ‘was just an aerial contest’, despite Maddocks being well-beaten in the jump and the striking similarities with the Israel Folau charge and yellow card from the third Test against Ireland.
Williams was on the sideline in Sydney when referee Pascal Gaüzère and TMO Ben Skeen conferred to hand Folau a yellow card just before halftime.
From the image above, on the left is the contest with Ireland skipper Peter O’Mahony missed by the officials but Folau was later cited and suspended for; the middle image is the yellow card incident, and on the right is Maddocks’ challenge on Higginbotham.
Given it was only a few weeks since Folau’s incidents, that kind of mid-air collision had to have been fresh in Williams’ mind. It’s just as hard to believe that he didn’t see the obvious similarities as it is that Maddocks wasn’t subsequently cited.
He’s clearly made contact with Higginbotham in the air and brought him to ground heavily. It’s at least on par with Folau’s yellow card contest and collision.
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And though Williams received praise from commentators and fans at the time, the two Folau decisions and the Maddocks non-decision cannot all be correct.
Later in the weekend, the headlines screamed ‘Brumbies Robbed’ when refereeing cult-hero Rasta Rasivhenge ruled a Brumbies knock-on from the last attacking play of the match, and not a deliberate knock-down from Chiefs lock Tyler Ardron. Despite the protestations of the Brumbies players, Rasivhenge didn’t refer the incident to TMO Shane McDermott.
Going back to Angus Gardner’s mid-season explanation of the deliberate knock-down interpretations in play this year, Ardron certainly wasn’t in a position to regather the ball he touched. If the line-break opportunity was there in the eyes of the officials, then it should’ve been a yellow card; if not, then a Brumbies’ penalty at worst.
The image above shows the similarity of intent to the Jacob Stockdale challenge on a Bernard Foley pass in that same Wallabies-Ireland Test in Sydney, in which referee Gaüzère called on TMO Skeen to check “potential foul play”, but who concluded that no clear and obvious knock-down was visible.
But why was one referred and the other wasn’t, everyone wanted to know? On the Sky Sport coverage, Tony Johnson was even moved to observe, “Surely that’s a situation worth revisiting”.
The problem here is that it’s not actually clear if Rasivhenge could have referred it even if he wanted to. The game’s Law book doesn’t exactly help, as Law 9 (Foul Play) doesn’t make mention of intentional knock-downs – which Gaüzère called upon Skeen – and Law 11 (Knock-on or Throw Forward) doesn’t mention use of TMO.
The January 2018 version of the TMO Global Trial Protocol does, however, make mention under Law 6.15.b.iv that the TMO can be called upon if officials believe “…an infringement may have occurred leading to a try or in preventing a try providing that the potential infringement has occurred no more than two phases (rucks or mauls) … before the ball has been grounded in in-goal.”
Regardless, Rasivhenge only saw it as a Brumbies knock-on in this case, and therefore had no reason to bring TMO McDermott into the discussion.
The question then becomes one of whether or not McDermott saw Ardron’s touch on the ball in the minute or so that followed before the scrum was packed, and whether he should have intervened as he is allowed to, under Law 6.15.c: “Any of the match officials, including the TMO, may recommend a review by the TMO…”
My argument remains the same as was the case back in February. As long as it’s consistent, it doesn’t matter whether it’s acceptable or intrusive. Until players and coaches and commentators and fans know better and react accordingly, it’s all necessary.
At the end of the day, we want to watch rugby played and officiated well and not a lottery. We should be able to watch a game with confidence that decisions made this week are in line with decisions made last week, last month, or last year.
Blaming referees for results is always a lazy argument; that’s something I’ve always believed and long stood by. And these are hardly the only contentious decisions from the weekend.
But the game can also certainly itself by addressing the chronic inconsistencies among its’ match officials, especially given it’s never been easier to spot them.