Brian Ashton: More common sense, less letter of the law from refs

Tackling The Issues

Most of the attention of rugby followers in recent days has been on Stuart Lancaster's initial selection decisions as interim England coach ahead of the Six Nations Championship and on the build-up to the decisive rounds of Heineken Cup pool games, the first batch of which take place this weekend. Both competitions are noted for the ferocity they generate, and it is a truism that in this kind of environment the mentally strong prevail.

In this connection, I find it interesting that the people who need to be as strong as anyone in the mind department – those charged with ensuring things run as smoothly as a dynamically chaotic game like rugby allows – rarely merit a mention when the big events are being previewed. Yet their decisions, the most significant of which inevitably decide the outcome, will be picked over and dissected, in real time and slow-motion replays, by studio analysts and armchair critics. In addition, they might well suffer abuse (mild in comparison to football, but abuse all the same) from the paying public, before being collared for less-than-polite talks with losing coaches keen to deflect attention from the poor performance of their teams. They will also find themselves castigated in the media if one of their law interpretations is deemed to be wrong.

I am, of course, talking about the men in the middle, armed with nothing more than a cheap whistle and the tacit support of the game's authorities. Referees must make split-second calls, often relating to incidents conducted at high speed in heavily congested areas of the field, in situations where even the best players find it easy to mess up. While players face fewer repercussions – it is not unusual for one to make a serious mistake and still walk away as man of the match – officials always suffer for their mistakes in terms of the reaction of the press and public.

Given the nature of the laws, many of which are open to interpretation, it surprises me that any mere human being should attempt to test himself to this degree on a weekly basis. As this is one area of rugby in which I have never come close to having the courage to fail, I for one value and appreciate the efforts of those who perform this most taxing of roles.

However, I do worry at times that some interpretations popular among present-day referees are too based on the letter of the law, rather than on a common-sense approach that might encourage players to take more responsibility in accepting the consequences of their actions. Last weekend, I had an interesting few minutes of half-time reflection in the company of a menacing, Damocles-like figure who was watching the same game (he turned out to be the referee's assessor) and was pleased to discover that we shared some views.

I am not, and never will be, a fan of the extended advantage – by which I mean the sanctioning of multiple phases of play following some greater or lesser offence, after which the game is brought back for a scrum, a free-kick or a penalty. In the recent Worcester-Gloucester match, the referee allowed a 10-phase passage of advantage before activating his original decision. If professional teams are unable to prise an opening in so prolonged a period of time, what the hell are they doing on the training ground all week? Even at the lower levels of the sport, a decision-maker worth his salt should be capable of taking the relevant factors into account and making a call within two or three phases as to whether the advantage is worth pursuing.

With things as they are, it seems to me we are encouraging players to meander through comfort-zone periods of meaningless rugby that often end with speculative drop-kicks at goal. Please, let's toughen up here. Let's focus more intently on players' decision-making and challenge them to do something decisive in a short space of time.

One of my coaching tenets is that a team can and should attack without the ball, as well as with it. "We lose the ball, we want it back, we contest it fiercely, and if we manage to secure a turnover, we have a prime attacking opportunity to exploit." That pretty much sums up my thinking. Sadly, I fear there is a refereeing assumption in the game that is almost endemic: namely, that if a team attacks through a number of phases, however innocuous those phases might be, and then has the ball stolen by a defending player at the tackle area, that defender must have done something dodgy. Sufficiently dodgy, often, to merit a yellow card. This cannot be right.

I'm all for putting a stop to cynical cheating at the ruck and clearing the pitch of players who indulge in illegality. But if the union game is to remain recognisable, there must be an honest contest for the ball on the floor. If this disappears, players will have carte blanche to flop to the ground when in possession, secure in the knowledge that the ball will be recycled and retained.

Another thing. Over recent years, I have spent time in the company of many coaches and spectators who become exasperated when, after the award of a free-kick, the referee prevents a quick "tap and go" that would catch the defence in disarray because he wants to admonish the player who committed the infringement. Why not allow the game to continue until the next break and then have a word?

One more point, before I clamber down from the hobby horse. Are there really as many dangerous high tackles as officials seem to make out? Duck into contact these days and you stand a fair chance of winning a penalty and seeing your opponent trudge off to the sin bin. Throw in a bit of Hollywood acting for good measure and the other team might be down to 14 men for the duration. The deliberate swinging arm is definitely dangerous, but it is also easy to spot. Occasions when a player tries to dislodge the ball but accidentally slips up towards his rival's shoulders are less perilous than a tap-tackle from behind.

Let's have a common-sense debate about all this. Get rid of the cheats at the earliest opportunity, but don't remove the spirit of contest from the game – and don't encourage players to rely on referees to make the big decisions instead of taking their own responsibility.