Rassie Erasmus has done the rugby world a gigantic favour – and by rugby world, I mean every rugby playing nation and fan out there.
He has put his career on the line for something he truly believes in, and he has said as much in his now infamous video.
He has done this to highlight an ongoing issue that has been seen but not addressed for as long as we can all remember in this sport – one of perceived bias.
I make this statement because the rules of rugby should be conceived as more of a social compact than a set of absolutes enforced with ruthless efficiency.
This is well known to fans, teams and their administration. There are already several administrative processes in place that try to manage this aspect of the game.
Various communication channels between teams and the the referee have been set up in order to mitigate and address such issues.
This is because we can all imagine games where a) the referee blows up every infringement without fail and we watch a game that ends with three players on either side and lasts four hours, or b) the referee allows a free-for-all where the teams beat each other to a pulp without any punitive outcome.
Neither of these is a desirable outcome, nor do these outcomes make for an interesting sport worth watching. And in this context, the referee’s role is invaluable.
He must allow the game to progress while enforcing its rules to the best of his ability.
The outcome of this requirement is that the referee is the final arbiter of the way a rugby game proceeds, and he forms a social contract with the players that they agree to adhere to or else face some sort of punitive discipline during the course of the game.
We also know that each team has an opportunity to meet with the referee prior to the match to discuss his interpretation of the laws, the areas that World Rugby is currently focused on addressing (which Erasmus highlighted in his video), and areas of play the referee intends to marshal strictly (which seems to differ between games and referees).
This opportunity is provided because of the nature of the sport and the desire to make the game both fair and enjoyable to watch.
Rugby is unfortunately ‘rules-tastic’ – there are many, constantly evolving, rules to the game.
Further, each team in a match is constantly breaking those rules to reach the boundary of what is ‘acceptable’ (this is something coaches and teams express regularly and the language they use in doing so is again indicative of the primary importance of the social contract with the referee, rather than strict adherence to rules).
Referees cannot and will not punish every infringement that occurs for fear that the sport itself will be ruined.
If the sport of rugby is based on a social compact between the teams and their referee, what is any party to this contract to do when that referee applies his interpretation of the rules inconsistently or does not apply the areas of focus he discussed with the teams prior to the match?
The only possible outcome of such inconsistency is perceived bias.
Any rugby fan will know that this issue has always plagued the sport, and that the only mitigating factor within the framework of the contract is the consistent and even-handed application of the referee’s interpretation of the rules (within the boundaries of player safety).
What do we do when that doesn’t happen? Well, up until now, we could do nothing because we imagined some sort of line that could not be crossed.
But Rassie did something – and was criticised for crossing the line.
Instead, we should thank him for speaking out – all of us should – because by doing so, he has addressed something fundamental to the game, and improved it.