How do Australian rugby players view and address referees?
“So, you felt, from your vantage point, that I shouldered his head with the point of my shoulder. Can you explain the basis?” This is how Michael Hooper tries to lay a predicate in the first part of the game.
As a veteran, he knows he isn’t fighting a battle over this particular call; he is going to war over future calls in the second half when he hopes to remind the referee of precedent.
What can we learn about this complex relationship between captains and referees, by studying the syntax and topics of Hooper, Will Genia, Stephen Moore, David Pocock, and their cohorts?
How does this peculiar Aussie-ref dialogue pattern compare and contrast with that of the Kiwis, Saffas, Poms, Celts, and the Latins? We will leave the French out of this for now, because all they do is contort their lips.
Australian rugby players, particularly captains, use an outlier approach to the referee. Genia likes to keep a running commentary, as if he is channelling George Gregan’s ghost, of virtually all events in the match.
This may explain why he runs out of puff. Unlike TJ Perenara, another noted instructional scrum-half, Genia embeds sarcasm in each of his comments. TJ simply barks.
Genia murmurs with a barb hidden in his parallel adjudications. “Not offside; not even close” as a quick retort to every ‘last feet’ warning by Jaco Peyper.
Moore would just interrogate the ref in an awkward, futile, and darkly comedic manner. “You say I popped up first. But are you sure? Were you looking closely? I didn’t see it that way.”
Pocock warns the ref and puts him on a last warning status. “Someone is going to get really hurt soon, mate! Is that what you want? I’m warning you!”
Some teams, like the Rebels, who are heavily penalised by all referees and carpet-bombed by Saffa officials, use a chorus approach. An eisteddfod of critique after each scrum collapse or ruck sin.
Maybe Australian rugby players take penalties too personally. My Queenslander friend, RobC, after noting Saffa players sort of grunt to refs and continue what they were doing. Similar to how the Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones handles officials, reminds me it is the moral duty of Australians to rebel, grieve, resist, and evade the law.
I asked him if Aussie rugby captains actually believe their communication strategy works or is it simply emotion and passion boiling over? “Dunno.”
Egalitarianism in Australia is an ethos, which may be less real than imagined. When I was there, I noticed it may be the only place on earth where a lone passenger sits in front with the taxi driver.
Maybe it’s larrikinism meeting boganism. Perhaps it’s my own imagination. But it seems like Aussie captains (except Dane Haylett-Petty, who is a hybrid and mostly nods to the ref) are more argumentative than their opposite numbers.
Breaking the law is really important in rugby. Show me a team with the fewest penalties at the end of a season, and I’ll show you a team that didn’t qualify for the finals.
Now, a few caveats on that: you don’t want to be minus on the scrum penalties, because that just stymies you in every way. Also, some teams play to force penalties, and they are very good at it.
The Heyneke Meyer Boks were that sort of team, as were the Jake White Boks, and also the Boks from 1908 to 2018. Wales appear to be this type of team, particularly eager to infringe when a try conceded is the other option, or when they won’t play to stop-start, but great at defending-without-fouling when stuck in their own 22 at the end of halves.
Nevertheless, you do want to be on the ‘wrong end’ of ruck penalties, and even a good amount of offside infringements, because that is not a sign of ill-discipline.
It’s a sign of attitude and zeal, and it’s also the same reason big servers have more double-faults or the top scorers in basketball have the most airballs and turnovers or why the politician who commits the most verbal gaffes, wins.
Tom Curry was the most penalised player in this year’s Six Nations, and made most of our Team of the Tournament picks, even though he can’t shave yet because he influenced games.
Wales were pinged more than England, as a whole. England needed more Curry in their diets.
The Rebels weren’t a good team until they learned to play foul and unfair. In 2018, their best player was Amanaki Mafi, who was penalised a league-leading 20 times (slightly improving on his total in 2017, when he was up there with George Smith for being whistled).
Faf de Klerk was hailed as a miniature Superman for his play in the Rugby Championship last year. He also led in conceded penalties. In 2017, it was Hooper who starred in the Championship and led with six adjudicated infringements.
Consider 2016, Sam Cane (24) and Scott Fardy (22) were their teams’ most valuable players. I’m ignoring props in this analysis because most referees have no idea. They base their decisions off ‘pictures’ shown to them by packs and honestly use reputations more than anything else. But Cane and Fardy led the way, and also attracted plenty of whistles.
In the 2016 Rugby Championship, the most-pinged are stellar champions like Lood De Jager, Augustin Creevy, Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles, and David Pocock. Hell, in the semi-final of the previous World Cup, Kieran Read, one of the smartest players on the planet, was pinged five times.
Richie McCaw led the 2015 Rugby Championship in penalties and Fardy led with 23 in Super Rugby that year. If you group all the players in this list, you have the makings of a champion team. Creevy, Coles, Lood, Retallick, Fardy, Cane, Curry, McCaw, Pocock, Mafi, Read, and Faf?
Captains don’t love penalties in the moment. What they really need is to get the benefit of the doubt on the 50-50s, and when hot on attack, or trying to complete at the scrum or maul.
That involves using AWJ-type maturity, or a bit of Jean de Villiers’ cheek, or the monosyllabic mutterings of Read. Plus, the real issue is reading the ref. Detecting patterns and spotting trends.
Maybe you put up fewer box kicks if you see the ruck-destroyers are being pinged at a four to one ratio as the ruck-creators. Maybe you swing it wide sooner if you learn the ref is an offsides czar, or adjust to how you play advantage, or even make the ref laugh a bit.