As we seek to rescue the international rugby game from the malaise that currently envelops it, I offer the below for further consideration, in addition to those in Part 1 of this letter.
1. The offside line, particularly from rucks
The defending side has the obligation to be demonstrably be onside, it’s that simple. Any grey areas advantage the attacking side. In the English Rugby Premiership and Super Rugby Aotearoa, we saw referees go hard on the breakdown directives with real success.
The English Premiership saw a rebirth of sorts for Bristol, Bath, Harlequins and Wasps with some wonderful rugby, while Super Rugby Aotearoa saw the world enthralled with a physicality, intensity and speed of the game which was the perfect relaunch of the sport. In New Zealand, penalty counts and ruck retention numbers moderated by Round 3.
Sadly, most of that progress is already lost on the international stage as sides do not trust equitable treatment of both sides of the ball and would rather kick it away.
2. Further reduction in the faux rest periods during games
We purists might appreciate the art involved in the set-piece, but the swing viewer, sponsor and advertiser do not. These are areas we can safely speed up while maintaining their integrity. Set piece itself should not be deemphasised, simply realigned.
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Lineouts, no more board meetings 20 metres from the lineout. No more walk-in line outs. Restrict the number of feint movements prior to throwing the ball in to one. Suggest a shot clock from when the ball passes the line of touch, managed by the TMO, it could be 20 seconds
Quick study: the last Super Rugby tournament showed scrums took 47 seconds to prepare to set. Add even further time for resets. Teams should have a time limit to be ready to begin at scrum time, shall we say 20 seconds? The referee safety aspects of setting a scrum remain unchanged and are in fact only a six-second part of the process.
The advantage law is a contradiction in terms. All penalty advantages outside of the attacking ten-metre zone should be whistled immediately. Playing on for two, three or four phases and then walking back to the prior offence simply allows the offending side to organise and reset
Immediate calling of the penalty brings into play the tap penalty or even helps the attacking side maintain momentum by kicking for touch (from behind the mark of course) and setting the next lineout quickly. Refer to this (unscientific) study.
3. We need to re-establish the authority of the referee
A number of initiatives should be introduced to better emphasise the whistleblowers as the men and women in charge of games:
Referees only engage with captains on the field, and even then, no extended dialogues. I do not want to see referees explaining themselves
All other players referred to by team colour and number only
Increased use of marching sides back ten metres for what the football people call dissent. Repeated verbal shots at the referee earns a yellow card
Do not warn any player, ever: a call of “hands off”, “roll away” or “step back” might seem to be a means of keeping a game flowing, but in reality, the defensive side has already gained its advantage. They have offended, slowed a ruck or taken away space, and they have achieved it without sanction
(Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)
6. Beware the misnomers as you make changes required
There are a number of various points on this front:
Refereeing to allow the “free flow” of the game in fact slows it down
Having teams, sponsors or advertisers tell you that enforcing the laws as written will ruin the game as a spectacle is already a year too late – we have no spectacle now
Do not think for a second that rebalancing the officiating focus de-emphasises defence or set-piece, nor reward for the effort parts of our game. This is not about generating a run fest or 15-man sevens, this is about balance, maintaining our code as a continuous safe contest for the ball and allowing sides with attacking intent to do so without officiating favouring the side without the ball
Treating a further changing of the laws as a potential panacea. It is not
Minutes of ball in play is a poor measure to pursue in isolation, especially as total game time elapsed continues to grow towards 100 minutes. Increasing ball in play minutes from 32 to 34 while total game time elapsed goes from 90 to 100 minutes is a failure
Ignore the coming squeals of defence coaches. They have had the tone of the game swing in their favour for too long. Let’s see if the current defensive systems can survive in a more balanced officiating environment.
Do not convince yourselves that things are not as bad as painted; they are. Don’t be the guys who listened to the person who said, “I’ve seen bigger icebergs”.
You have it within your global mandate to direct and model how rugby should be officiated. Players and coaches will only respond to how you direct them via the official in the middle.
Only courageous, consistent, centralised direction of officiating can redirect our sport back onto the right track.
If you have made it this far into the letter, my sincere thanks.
Rugby supporters are right behind you and the journey needs to start right now.