After being yellow-carded by French referee Jérôme Garcès in the second half in Dublin, James Haskell’s face had the look of a man who had been on the wrong end of a bad call. From what I’ve read over the last few days, there is pretty much a divided camp when it comes to this incident. Harsh? Unlucky? Wrong place, wrong time? Or just deserts for someone who knew exactly what he was doing? “Remember, he has form here”, some might say…
The breakdown/tackle area is probably the most challenging area of the game to officiate. A referee must make a quick, clear and confident decision. The demanding nature of this facet of the game means that there may well be a number infringements going on at once. With an toolbox of both experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of the laws, even a professional referee will have a tough time of getting every decision correct… let the armchair viewer decide and it becomes closer to a guessing game.
The last thing I want to do here is quote the IRB law book, but I think it’s worth summarising what the referee’s thought process might be in the context of the law… the logic being that at least we might get closer to assessing whether it was fair, taking the example of Haskell, to penalise and then yellow card.
So, the tackle: to paraphrase the law book, it is “when a ball carrier is held and brought to ground by an opposition player / players”. Once a tackle has been made, a number of things run through a referee’s mind:
1. Identify the tackler(s). They are his priority. They must immediately release the tackled player, get up or move away from both the tackled player and the ball. You usually won’t get points 2 and 3 below enforced if this priority has not been complied with.
2. Look at the tackled player to release, place or pass the ball immediately. The tackler must not impede the opposition’s effort to gain possession of the ball and he should get up/move away from it at once
3. In tandem with point 2 above, look at what arriving players are doing. The key point is whatever they are doing must be done on their feet and they must enter a tackle from an onside position (through the back foot of the tackle often referred to as “the gate”). Note that tackler(s) are not “arriving players” and do not need to “go through the gate” provided they have complied with point 1 above (which includes allowing the tackled player to do something with the ball, provided that tackled player does it immediately).
So the key points are tacklers release/move; tackled player release/move; arriving players on their feet and through the gate. You may well hear combinations of these words uttered by the referee as he tries to manage the tackle area and prevent players from infringing. Bear in mind that this is the TACKLE area; a ruck only forms when at least one player from each side are in contact on their feet over the ball, something I won’t get into here, but which is often a natural development of a tackle.
The sobering thought here is that a referee could in nearly all tackles, applying the letter of the law, award a penalty against either side. To do so would create a farce, so he must apply empathy and consider to some extent the intent of the players based on his experience (in a consistent manner). “Did 7 red go off his feet deliberately; was 6 blue really trying move away; did any actions have a MATERIAL effect on the progression of the game?”
So let’s return to Haskell. How well did he do when it came to the summary of his obligations at the tackle? Consider the referee’s priorities… he released the tackled player but did he move away from the tackled player and the ball immediately? He certainly looked to be trying and I guess there will always be debate about such instances: some would say: “yeah, look, he’s trying to get out of there!” Others would disagree, and in reality he could probably have moved away a little faster.
Taking it a step further, once the referee has made his decision that an offence has taken place, with Ireland moving forward quickly in a strong attacking position, the yellow card becomes an option because of the effect it has on the momentum of that passage of play, i.e. his view will be that Haskell cynically slowed Ireland down in a potential points-scoring attack.
So spare a thought for the ref – just to apply the Laws of the game is the easy bit. The challenge at the tackle (and there may be 100 or more during a game) is to apply some measure of common sense, empathy, materiality and experience such that the players have a meaningful contest.
To end on a philosophical level, consider the spectators: does the game owe them “entertainment?” It depends very much on how you define it and to whom the game is trying to appeal. One issue I foresee as rugby becomes a more global (and I would say money-driven) sport is whether the governing body (IRB) comes under enough pressure to simplify the game – perhaps more significant Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) than we have seen to date. Most of us would hope this will never happen but in the interests of attracting new audiences, it is certainly possible that areas such as the tackle and, of course, the scrum will be watered down to make it easier for the man on the street to understand… Rugby League, anyone?
By Will Thomas
Will is Welsh but lives in Devon. He is a passionate yet frustrated Wales supporter (not an uncommon breed) who has played the game to varying standards. After having to stop playing due to injury, he has been refereeing to a good standard for the last eight years in the South West (mostly Devon).