Way back in March, after Round 4 had been played in fact, leading New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe appeared on The Breakdown alongside Jeff Wilson and Sir John Kirwan on Sky Sport in NZ.
As a complete aside, it’s fantastic to have referees making these kinds of occasional appearances and there should be more of them, everywhere.
O’Keeffe made a series of really insightful and interesting comments on a number of topics, but the headlines and viral video clips came from his comments about the difference between the way the breakdown is played and refereed between the northern and southern hemisphere competitions over the last 12-18 months.
The clip of O’Keeffe’s comments even featured here on The Roar for several days.
And I’ve even had a one-minute clip of the audio set aside and ready to use on The Roar Rugby Podcast, but we’ve just not got there for no particular reason. Obviously, my co-host would be at fault.
“I think you’ve seen in the first few rounds of Super Rugby this year, they are slow,” O’Keeffe said, regarding the speed of the breakdown in the opening rounds.
And to be frank, the speed hasn’t improved at all as the season has continued. Watching the Brumbies-Blues game at close range on Saturday night, it was hard to think it hadn’t got worse.
“The game is slow, we are not getting that quick ball we’ve had over the last few years,” O’Keeffe continued.
“Six Nations, when I refereed it last year, it was slow. This year it’s fast. It’s no surprise that we saw Ireland and France play like they did in November.
“It’s our responsibility as referees to get that player rolling out, so that the players are trusting the referee that they will get that roll, and they’re coming in high (on the cleanout) and getting quick ball out.
“There is that balance that the referee has got to do their job too, and when it happens, it’s a fast game.”
In response, Kirwan asked a simple and equally valid question: “Is that a coached thing?”
“Yeah, look, I think it’s two ways,” O’Keeffe replied.
“You’ve got to be coached to be accurate during the week, to hit rucks upright so that you are driving and not diving.
“Because it shouldn’t be our responsibility [to enforce accuracy in the cleanout] – because we will do it on Saturday, we will have to penalise it. There has been a lot of penalties for ‘off feet’ in Super Rugby this year.
“But people don’t want to see us (doing that). That’s the time you get coached to do it. So, actually learn it during the week, and if you’re penalised on the weekend, it’s because you got it wrong, rather than that’s the only time it happens and you get penalised.”
All these comments from someone who has to deal with the breakdown intimately on a weekly basis came flooding back me on Saturday night.
Because it was noticeable that the Brumbies were indeed preferring to stay on the feet and clean through the ruck, rather than just dive into bodies. And it was noticeable because it worked; from their first possession near halfway toward the end of the first minute, the Brumbies were inside the Blues’ 22 in five phases.
They played another five phases before Tom Wright was bundled into touch, but they regained the ball with a lineout steel from Darcy Swain. As they neared the posts in the run-up to Pete Samu’s try in the third minute, you could again see players trying to stay on their feet and drive through the ruck to clear the ball quicker.
Post-match, a number of senior Brumbies players confirmed it was something they were trying to bring into their game, because the benefits are plainly clear. And in fairness, they may have done it last week as well, but such was their horror error rate against the Crusaders that anything they were doing well was quickly overlooked.
And even in this game, with only 30 per cent of possession for the match, it wasn’t something they did a lot. And they certainly didn’t do it all the time, witnessed by the number of penalties they conceded for going off their feet.
But it’s interesting they’re trying it and I expect more teams will follow suit soon enough, because the rest of the rugby world saw that penny drop when World Rugby first handed down their new breakdown directives years ago.
Remember how there was a flood of ruck penalties and we in Super Rugby all typically blew up about referees ruining the game, and Australia and New Zealand were crafting their own competitions to edge their way forward after the first strike of the pandemic, and so ‘local interpretations’ of the directives were employed and the penalties dried up down our way?
Well, in the north, they kept blowing penalties and players and teams adjusted the end result was an engrossing Six Nations tournament and far more watchable rugby being produced in the Europeans’ cups and the Premiership and even the United Rugby Championship seemingly on a weekly basis.
Meanwhile, in Super Rugby, we’ve now got what both teams played and the officials allowed to be played in Canberra on Saturday night as just the most recent example of the terrible mess the breakdown has become.
Exactly a year ago this week, Roar regular and amateur analyst of note, Highlander, observed “the Six Nations went from unwatchable to entertaining in a single year as first France and then Ireland, Wales and Scotland recognised the upside opportunities of ball movement under the new officiating.”
“We now have coaches in France and England using catch phrases like LQB (lightning quick ball) and KBA (keep ball alive). Surely that can only be a good thing for the sport, as opposed to past associated acronyms of PAG (pick and go) and TSW (try to stay awake),” he wrote, as scathing as it was accurate.
“And the issues of the late arriving inaccurate clean outs? They are not gone but massively improved in short order, because the associations and the referees did not relent. Players learn quickly when the downside is losing.”
Highlander’s assertions last May were more targeted toward the struggles of the Australian teams in the opening weeks of Super Rugby trans-Tasman last year, but as O’Keeffe noted earlier this year, the breakdown is now slow across all of Super Rugby in 2022.
Seeing what the Brumbies were trying to do on Saturday night and remembering O’Keeffe’s comments from March and further recalling that England and Ireland were heading our way in July quickly left me with an impending sense of dread.
That both the Wallabies and All Blacks are going to have to make significant and quick adjustments to how they approach the breakdown, lest they be stuck with slow ball all night and/or be penalised off the park.
And that would surely only play in both England and Ireland’s hands.
When O’Keeffe made his observations back in March, I thought at the time this logical breakdown approach was going to be something that surely our teams would cotton onto and bring in over time this season. I was probably expecting ‘over time’ wouldn’t be another ten rounds.
And it will be interesting to see how many other teams try to move toward the more upright clean out, with the finals now very rapidly approaching, just as it will be equally interesting to see referees rewarding just the first arriving player, and not the second, third and sometimes the fourth; some of whom couldn’t find ‘the gate’ in an actual gate factory.
Certainly, it’s not the job of referees to coach the players during a game. But it is their job to uphold the laws.
And by properly upholding those laws – as they discovered in the north and quite quickly at that – the game in our part of the world might finally catch up with the rest of the world, and become greatly improved as a spectacle.