What a gamble, what a lottery, what a farce!

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The Independent Online
The last four months have seen the biggest changes in rugby I have known. Some of them have been both exciting and overdue: others neither. But what has become apparent with every Saturday afternoon is that not only the quality but the very nature of the game depends on the referee. It is his interpretation of the laws, as they are called in England - the rules, almost everywhere else - which determines what happens on the field.

So far, so obvious, you may say dismissively. But it is not obvious at all when you come to think about it. Thus football is a simple game, which is why it is so popular, whose only complicated area is the application of the offside rule. Here the referee has two qualified linesmen virtually to apply it on his behalf. Tennis is even simpler, where the only difficulty lies in judging whether the ball was inside, on or outside a white line. Here electronic devices have come to the aid of the umpires.

Cricket, to be sure, is more complicated. In a scholarship examination which I sat at 18 I had (in a question I chose voluntarily) to explain it to a foreigner. I was sorry I tried. But though the rules are complex, they are coherent and comprehensible. There are few areas of latitude: such as what is "unfair play". The principal difficulty is to establish what happened. Accordingly additional officials have been introduced to help the umpires.

Rugby is different. There is no agreement about what the rules mean or how they should be applied. Brian Moore would not have been sent off for raking or stamping if he had been playing for Auckland against Canterbury rather than for Richmond against Sale.

European, certainly British Isles, referees take a different view. They will not permit an attacking player to move a defending player with his boot in an attempt to get at the ball. The most they are prepared to allow is a penalty to the attacking side. But this is frequently unjust.

Consider: a player is tackled but the tackler fails to "turn" him. The tackled player, by this time on the ground, legitimately tries to make the ball available to his own side. Forwards pile in from both teams. In these circumstances, which we see repeated every five minutes every Saturday, there cannot logically be a "right" or a "wrong" side of the ball. From the point of view of the tackled player's team, he is on the right side; from that of the tackler's team, on the wrong.

As I have said, the referee may award a penalty to the tackler's team. But he has, in theory anyway, an entirely different option. The tackled player has simply tried to make the ball available to his own team. The ball is on the ground. It is being contested by both packs. It is accordingly a ruck. The referee can blow up and award the put-in at the resulting scrum to the team who took the ball into the ruck, the tackled player's team: for it cannot be the other one.

If, however, the ball has failed to touch the deck, the ensuing melee counts as a maul, where, if the ball fails to emerge, the referee awards the put-in against the team adjudged to have taken the ball in. What a gamble, what a lottery, what a farce! Is it any wonder that experienced television commentators, sometimes former internationals themselves, are often at a loss to explain why a particular decision has been made, even though they are assisted by television in the commentary box?

A few weeks ago I was watching Bath play Harlequins at the Rec and standing behind Stuart Barnes, who was doing his stuff as a summariser for Sky TV. A player was penalised for lying on the ground and not getting out of the way. Barnes said, entirely justly, that he did not see what else the chap could do in the circumstances. If someone as experienced in the modern game as Barnes can be puzzled, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I could mention other matters: the toleration of the crooked feed; the modern English fashion for awarding ridiculous penalty tries which has now spread to Wales; the new ambivalence about what is and is not a dangerous tackle. But the real trouble remains with "over the top", "not releasing" and the rest of it. For a start I would, first, abolish the distinction between ruck and maul and, second, always award the put-in to the advancing side.

I apologise for the mysterious mis-spelling of Stradey Park in last week's column. I am now off to pay my annual pilgrimage to the grave of William Webb Ellis in Menton, and shall (DV) be back on Tuesday 21 January. A Happy New Year to all my readers.