Peter Bills: Referees must punish cheats

When, oh when, will rugby’s referees take off their kid gloves and sort out the mess at the breakdown?

The ruck. The pile up, the breakdown - call it what you will. Whatever name you use, it has become the biggest blight on the entire game.

Former Ireland and Irish Lion Donal Lenihan said recently during the Munster/Ulster Magners League clash "At almost every second breakdown there seems to be a penalty."

There’s a good reason for that. Players are cheating. And the sad fact is, few referees are doing much to stop them.

When you get even international referees like Alan Lewis prepared to ignore the evidence in front of their eyes, what chance is there of a crackdown?

At Thomond Park 10 days ago, Lewis, one of the top Irish officials, allowed a blatantly illegal offside by Ulster scrum half Isaac Boss to go unpunished. Well, he gave a penalty, but Lewis failed to dish out what should have been the minimum sanction - a yellow card.

Now I don’t want to slate referees like Alan Lewis. All referees have a nightmare of a job. They need eyes in the back of their heads to do their jobs these days, there’s so much going on in the game and at such speed.

Maybe Lewis thought he was being kind, to Boss and the supporters who might have seen an uneven contest had he sent the Ulster player to the sin-bin for ten minutes. I honestly don’t know.

But what referees like Lewis are doing by continuing to avoid serious punishment for offences such as Boss’s - coming round completely the wrong side of the ruck onto the Munster side to try and kill their chance of winning quick loose ball - is risking killing the game.

Until those who offend are sorted out and sent off the field, firstly for 10 minutes and then on a permanent basis if they carry on doing it, we’ll never have the type of fast, free flowing game that is surely the ambition of most teams and players.

You can’t score tries - well, it’s nearly impossible - in these days of solid, supremely organised defences unless you win quick ball at the breakdown. And those who try and slow down or stop completely the opposition’s supply are tying a knot around the throat of attacking, running rugby.

Why should they be allowed to get away with it? Boss knew exactly what he was doing in the 38th minute at Thomond Park. Just as thousands of others who do the same or something similar in so many games.

The great contrast to this came in the Northampton v Leicester Guinness Premiership match last Saturday. Northampton’s inventive backs prospered, notably full-back Ben Foden, because Leicester were unable to kill the loose ball. Wayne Barnes' refereeing early on made it clear that wasn’t an option and we got a game – an absolutely cracking game, actually. A coincidence? Not at all.

Foden’s second half try, brilliantly made for him by a classic piece of skill in which the ball carrier timed his pass to perfection and the support player’s (Foden) clever running angle did the rest, was exquisite. Yet had Leicester been able to kill the loose ball, we’d never have seen that superb skill.

Fast, re-cycled second phase possession is the oxygen of attacking rugby. Without it, the game stagnates and dies.

But Alan Lewis is far from the only referee who fails to crack down on all this. There seems to be, among most referees, a view that sending players to the sin bin should be a last resort, to be avoided wherever possible.

Unfortunately, such a policy is being ruthlessly exploited by players all around the world. Many have taken it as a green light to cheat, safe in the knowledge that the odds against them being sin-binned or even sent off for permanent offending, are remote.

The result is the kind of mess you see in the modern game. How many times do referees shout ‘Ruck - Hands off’ in a match? It can be heard at almost every ruck. It’s as if players don’t know the rules.

Of course they do. The truth is, by the time a referee has shouted that twice, the damage - i.e. slowing down the opposition’s ball - has been done. And slow ball is useless at cracking modern day defences. A contest for the loose ball is one thing, killing it illegally quite another.

This problem won’t be solved until referees start playing hard ball.


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected