I'd like to start by awarding full marks to Alan Lewis, the Irish referee, for his handling of last weekend's Heineken Cup match between Toulouse and Cardiff Blues.
Lewis did something rather unusual – and, in the process, did the game a significant favour – by sending Paul Tito, the Blues captain, to the sin bin a few minutes into the contest. Most referees wouldn't dream of taking such decisive action against a player committing a ruck offence at so early a juncture, and this has become a problem for the sport. When officials shy away from their responsibilities, it is always the rugby that suffers.
Some of the people I played with and against in the dim and distant past will read this homage to Mr Lewis and wonder if I've finally flipped my lid: they remember how, during my time as a scrum-half, I enjoyed – how shall we put it? – engaging in conversation with referees about the state of a particular match, especially if he had made one or two calls I felt were dodgy. But over the course of a long career in coaching, I have noted an increase in the levels of cynicism. Hard evidence is difficult to come by, but I have no doubt that some players take the field fully prepared to commit early offences, on the basis that referees are generally a soft touch for the first quarter or so.
This cannot be right. A team's best scoring opportunity might easily arise in the opening minutes, yet an opponent can kill the attack stone dead in a wholly illegal fashion and escape with nothing more than a penalty award against his team. What should have been a seven-point score is reduced to one of the three-point variety, with the infringing side keeping all 15 players on the field.
In his after-match interview, Tito initially suggested his offence had not been worthy of a yellow card. Yet the referee had issued the clearest of warnings to the Blues, who were transparently guilty of interfering with Toulouse ball on the floor pretty much from the kick-off. And why shouldn't he have done? Ball-killing in the first minute is no different to ball-killing in the 80th minute and it is a blight on the sport. Apart from anything else, it prevents the public seeing the kind of rugby they've paid good money to watch.
After applauding Lewis for standing firm and effectively saying, "I know what you did, you know what you did, here's a yellow card", I made a careful study of the subsequent games to see what players were getting away with as a result of lenient refereeing. The most obvious crime was offside, especially when the ball was moved wide to the touchline, leaving a team defending the whole width of the field. Time and again, entire defensive lines could be seen encroaching before the attacking scrum-half reached the ruck; indeed, some of it was every bit as blatant as the incident in the West Ham-Chelsea match, when Frank Lampard had to take a penalty three times because of people crowding into the area before the kick.
Another obvious transgression saw runners chasing kicks from an offside position. This was barely policed at all. As for the number of crooked feeds at the scrum – well, that really was a joke. This week, I'm launching a new game called "Spot the Straight Feed": frankly, I don't expect to see more than a couple over the entire Premiership programme. The way things are going, union set pieces will soon be no different to those in rugby league, and this will allow coaches to pick light, mobile, running, tackling tight forwards rather than specialist scrummagers. It could be good news for everyone who wants to see the ball moved a little more – everyone, that is, except the Australians, who spent years trying to achieve precisely this without success. As they have now found themselves a real tight five, league-style scrummaging is the last thing they want to see.
Without wishing to sound too much like a member of the moral majority, I have to say that the failure to crack down on these casual floutings of the law does the sport a disservice. Having heard so much from coaches bemoaning the difficulty of playing attacking rugby under the interpretations currently being applied around the tackle area, it is doubly frustrating that opportunities for dynamic and inventive play should be minimised by people who take the field assuming that certain acts will not be penalised as often or as heavily as they should be.
In this spirit, I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas – especially those referees who are prepared to do the necessary, when the situation demands, and intend to keep doing it in 2010. Like Alan Lewis.
Advantages in quick decisions
Am I alone in wondering whether the advantage law, as commonly applied by referees around the world, is becoming counter- productive?
I have no issue with advantages for minor offences like knock-ons: generally the referee allows only a couple of phases to unfold before bringing play back for a scrum.
But when a penalty offence has been committed, advantages are often allowed to drag on for ever and a day. Sometimes, two-minute chunks of play can be lost from a game where the ball might be in play for only 35 minutes. This cannot be good in value-for-money terms.
To my mind, professional players should not need the safety net of a two-minute advantage to assess all the variables and make the kind of informed decision that will allow their side to capitalise on a free piece of possession.
We all want to see a quicker game. A rethinking of the application of advantage would surely speed things up.