Peter Bills: Referees must reach a consensus

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First up, my apologies to those who read last week's column and seemed to draw the inference that I supported and welcomed lunatic Super 14 score lines such as the Chiefs' 72-65 win over the Lions in Johannesburg 12 days ago.

For the record, here is what I wrote in the southern hemisphere...

"The damage done to the image of southern hemisphere rugby by two score lines from last weekend's Super 14, is incalculable.

The absurd 72-65 victory of the Chiefs over the Lions in Johannesburg plus the 50 points to 32 Bulls win over the Brumbies will have reinforced a widespread belief up in the northern hemisphere that this is candyfloss rugby in disguise.

I mean, how the hell do you explain a match of 18 tries? Well, try lousy defence and pathetic tackling for a start. In places like Cardiff, Twickenham and Dublin, they'll be laughing themselves silly at such a try fest. Rugby diarrhoea, lads, and nothing else: certainly not a serious version of the game.

Well, you have yourselves to blame. Miss as many tackles as the Lions did at Coca Cola Park last Friday night and you deserve little more than jeers and jokes. At best, it was powder puff tackling; at worst, the non-existent variety. They're right up in the northern hemisphere. When two sides tackle properly, how the hell can you end up with a score line like that?

Frankly, it did the game a disservice..."

Yet having made that clear, there appears to be a looming conflict of interpretation by referees as next year's World Cup approaches. Match officials handling Super 14 games this year have been ruthless in penalising players slowing down release of the ball at the breakdown, far more so than officials in the northern hemisphere.

What this has meant is, second phase possession has generally been secured in a flash, so that the ball has been recycled and spread wide with the pace rarely dropping. I've watched some of the southern hemisphere's finest flank forwards, from Australians George Smith and Phil Waugh, to South Africans Heinrich Brussouw and Schalk Burger and there is no doubt that their potential to spoil, to seal off the loose ball at the breakdown and thereby slow down the opposition's possession has been severely reduced by this strict interpretation from officials.

We should bear in mind one thing here – no new laws have been introduced. All that has happened is that the match officials have refereed to the letter of the law at the breakdown. The ball carrying player must be completely released by the tackler, so as to enable him to free the ball for his colleagues. No tackler can bring him down, hold onto him as he regains his feet and keep contesting the loose ball.

This has transformed the attacking game in the Super 14. Players have to be fitter because there is much more running by the attacking side and the need for far more covering by defenders. In other words, the dreaded breakdown, which had become a complete blight on the modern game, has been reduced in importance. In my view, we should all welcome that.

This does NOT mean that the defending side cannot contest the ball at the breakdown. One of the best ways to do that under this interpretation of the laws is by counter rucking. If the defending side gets more bodies quicker to the breakdown, they can counter ruck extremely effectively and produce turnovers. Already, this has been seen in several Super 14 games.

The positive side of this aspect is that the more bodies defending teams commit at the breakdown to try and counter ruck, the less numbers of forwards that are left to clutter up the midfield and throttle threequarter play.

I think this proper interpretation of the existing laws is a shot in the arm for attack in the modern game. But thus far, the rugby being played in the northern hemisphere is barely half the speed of the southern hemisphere version this year.

Plodding England demonstrated that again at Twickenham last Saturday and it's no surprise. They select most of their players from the Guinness Premiership where the play is so slow it's almost stationary much of the time.

But if, as seems likely, the authorities like what they see from the referees' proper interpretation in the Super 14, what happens then? I imagine it will spread to the northern hemisphere next season, starting in September.

That will mean players are going to have to get a whole lot fitter and faster as well as thinking quicker on their feet.

All of which is good news for the game because it is a far better spectacle when refereed properly, as we are seeing in the Super 14.