Peter Bills: Do rugby players not know the rules?

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:37

It’s a question that intrigues me every time I watch a game of rugby. Do modern day players actually need to be told the rules by referees?

If you listen to match officials, the answer in their mind is clearly yes. How many times in a game do you hear the match official shouting ‘Ruck, no hands’ at players illegally scrabbling for the ball on the ground? Welsh whistler Nigel Owens’ unique, plaintive cry of ‘Hands away’ has become legendary in the game.

Players have the rules explained to them all the way through games. ‘You came in from the side’ (at a ruck), ‘You’re on the wrong side’, ‘You’re not behind the rear feet’ or ‘You can’t do that’ are all phrases you will hear from referees who have penalised players.

It is completely bizarre, as though the officials always have to justify their decisions. Yet how come players need to be told what they’re doing is wrong? Don’t they know the rules?

How is it that players performing at high levels of the sport, like Super 15 or even international rugby, need to have the laws explained to them? I find it absurd.

If it is a case of referees feeling the need to justify their decision, then that is palpably wrong too. Players know when they’re offside, they surely know when they’ve dived over the top at rucks or pulled down a rolling maul. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be out there.

Nor do you encounter this sort of nonsense in other sports. Cricket umpires don’t spend their time telling bowlers they can’t put their feet over the front line of the popping crease and can't bowl balls that pitch on the next wicket on the square.

Soccer referees don’t have to explain to a player every time they have gone offside why they have been penalised. A flag goes up, they just blow the whistle and get on with it.

But in rugby it is totally different. The whole game is like a grand educational experience for players on the laws.

I see it as no function of the match official to try and teach them the laws of the game as they go along. But very often that is the impression you get.

‘Oh, you mean I can’t dive over the top of a pile of bodies on the ground to seal off the ball and make sure the opposition don’t recycle it quickly....Oh I’m sorry, I never knew that. Silly me’.......

How ludicrous is that?

Modern day players are as wily as a wagon load of monkeys. They play match officials as if they were violins. Referees surely know that, too – they’re not fools, most of them. So why do we have this endless charade of refs continually explaining the laws to a player to justify having penalised him?

What I am saying is that it is time referees made assumptions and cracked down harder on errant players. They should assume, rightly, that every player knows the laws. If they don’t, you can bet they have been coached on how best to manipulate them by their coaches.

So if they play the innocent, as so many players do, and give the impression of not knowing the laws, get them off the field to learn them. And if they keep on offending, like the Chiefs’ scrum at a series of scrum 5’s in the Super 15 game in Hamilton against the Blues recently, take punitive action.

Referees should be far more willing to use yellow cards to stamp out this deliberate infringing. For the fact is, when you look at it in reality, it is attempted cheating, nothing less. Does any game want that?

Deep down, I promise you one thing. If players are sin-binned, they will know the reason.

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