Paul Thomas: Not the beautiful game

By Paul Thomas In Sport

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2nd April, 2014 Leave a Comment

Are referees and scrums making rugby unwatchable? Thus far, precious little of Super Rugby has been pretty to watch, and pedantic (and sometimes inept) refereeing and endless mucking around at scrum time are the usual suspects.

With resets seemingly the norm rather than the exception, scrums are chewing up more and more time. There’s a case for stopping the clock once the referee deems a scrum to be unworkable and keeping it stopped while the forward packs disentangle themselves, listen to a (generally platitudinous) lecture and get back in formation.

The breakdown lottery: Ma‘a Nonu in action for the Blues against the Cheetahs. Photo/Getty Images

And some of the refereeing displays – for instance, that of Argentinean Francisco Pastrana in the Blues-Cheetahs match – would have prompted more channel surfing than insomnia.

To some extent, though, this is the nature of the beast. What differentiates union from league is that the former is a contest for possession, whereas in the latter you hand the ball over after six tackles.

When you have two highly motivated teams competing for one ball, things are bound to get messy from time to time. Until lifting was permitted, the lineout was a dockyard brawl. In the days when rucking was a euphemism for stomping the daylights out of anyone who got on the wrong side of the ball or was simply trapped on the ground, the breakdown could be an unedifying spectacle.

Players no longer get trampled, but plenty of cheap shots are inflicted in the name of “cleaning out” and the breakdown is more of a lottery than ever: on which of the several players in technical breach will the referee’s eye fall?

Because rugby is a contest for possession fought out on four technically distinct battlegrounds – scrum, lineout, breakdown and restart – its law book is neither a quick nor an easy read.
(According to WikiAnswers, rugby has 504 laws.) So while we complain about officious refereeing, arguably the only way a referee can avoid being officious is by turning a blind eye to some transgressions or not enforcing certain laws, both of which open other cans of worms.

These tensions and contradictions were unintentionally highlighted by Sky TV’s commentators last weekend. In the Hurricanes-Highlanders game, the Highlanders had a scrum feed in a prime attacking position: just outside the Hurricanes’ 22, in front of the posts. But the Hurricanes front row applied some heat, the Highlanders conceded a penalty and game caller Scotty Stevenson and ex-All Black insight-provider Justin Marshall had this exchange.

JM: “It’s just frustrating though, isn’t it? Great attacking position, a chance for us all to see some good quality backplay … ”

SS: “Hang on, give the guy some credit. The scrum is a contest and Ben Franks has just scrummed the house down to save his team. That’s a great play.”

JM: “But a lot of that at the moment is costing us quality in the game.”

SS: “What’s not quality about this? He just beasted his opposite.”

I’m with Stevenson here. But the following night, he defected to the “entertainment first” side of the argument, declaring “This guy’s got to put his whistle away” when Pastrana penalised the Cheetahs for being in front of the kicker. As another former All Black, Jeff Wilson, pointed out, “If [Pastrana] lets that play out and as a result something goes in favour of the Cheetahs in the outcome, then he’ll be looked upon as not doing his job”.

Referees are an easy target, but they don’t drop the ball or slow it down or collapse scrums. More often than not, the players determine whether a game is a spectacle or an ordeal.

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