North-South Divide: Steve Walsh Talks Interpretation, Inconsistency and Improvement

Consistency – the key to refereeing. Described as the “holy grail” by International Rugby Board (IRB) CEO Brett Gosper, but so often lacking among rugby’s top match officials. We hear with monotonous regularity those involved with the game bemoaning the variations that plainly exist between referees at the highest level, and have done for a number of years. The manner in which different individuals interpret some of the game’s key aspects, the scrum and the breakdown, is a subject constantly being debated. Even something as simple as a forward pass, and what constitutes one, is policed with altering attitudes by the sport’s elite whistleblowers.

This week, I spoke to veteran test-match referee Steve Walsh in connection with a feature piece on the IRB’s new scrum directive set to appear on The Rugby Blog in the coming weeks. The New Zealander was typically forthright and frank in his views on the perceived gap between the breakdown interpretations of one referee and the next at elite level. In the eyes of many, including Walsh, this gap is at its most glaringly obvious between officials in the Southern Hemisphere and their Northern counterparts.

“I think we have got a separation at the breakdown, and that is very much split North and South, I believe.

“In the last meeting between referees, we finally nailed down that there is a difference at the breakdown regarding defending players putting their hands past the ball, trying to steal the ball, and not supporting their bodyweight. We need to nut out how we’re going to fix that at this stage.”

This was an issue that reared its ugly head this summer, as the British and Irish Lions took on Australia in one of the sport’s flagship events. The interpretations of the test match referees – Chris Pollock (NZ), Craig Joubert (South Africa) and Romain Poite (France) – varied wildly from week to week. In the opening clash, Lions head coach Warren Gatland claimed that Pollock “crucified” his side at the breakdown, particularly illustrious centre Brian O’Driscoll. Walsh is not so sure.

“There were two penalties against O’Driscoll in the first test-match for, I suppose, not supporting his bodyweight.

“The referee knows he made a mistake on one of them, but the other one, I would say that my colleagues and I in the Southern Hemisphere absolutely thought that he was right, and the penalty was correct.

“Whereas almost all the Northern Hemisphere guys thought that both penalties were wrong. So there is a split regarding supporting bodyweight at the breakdown and attacking the ball – we need to be better at that. That’s where the biggest difference is at the moment.”

That the performance of a referee dominated the headlines in the wake of, at the time, comfortably the biggest game of the season, spoke volumes on a problem that has niggled away at the sport for a number of years.

It is important, here, to remember that, given the solo nature of refereeing, a particular individual may be marginally more stringent than another in any given area, and this is a point Walsh is keen to acknowledge.

“The majority of the differences are around maybe culturally or individually how we see things.

“Whether we’re technically minded or more liberal in our approach – that’s human nature, and you’re never going to get away from it, because that just comes down to individuals. For example, you might have an accountant, who’s very rigid in the way he sees certain things versus a musician, who’s more liberal.”

Some argue that the weather conditions in the Northern Hemisphere versus the Southern Hemisphere dictate, to an extent, the style of play teams adopt, and that referees have adapted to officiate accordingly. The Kiwi describes how the resultant philosophies of referees from different parts of the globe may affect their interpretations.

“I need to mention how we reward the ball-carrying team versus non-ball-carrying team.

“The statistics show that the team without the ball get penalised roughly 75% of the time down south, whereas up north the split is about 60-40.”

But surely, in a sport with one set of laws for all, this cannot be possible? Perhaps more importantly, what are the IRB and High Performance Match Official Manager Joël Jutge doing about it? Walsh maintains that, from a previous state of denial, the governing body and the elite panel of referees are now taking steps to tackle the problem.

“I was talking to the boss, Joël Jutge, about this, and I think he was happy that we’ve now nailed down what the differences are, instead of us all saying “No, it’s ok, there are no problems”.”

“Knowing those two things is important to at least be able to put a stake in the ground and say ‘this is where we’re at now, where do we need to get to where everyone in the game – players, coaches, spectators, media and referees – is happy? How do we get there? What does it look like?’ That’s the next stage between now and our next meeting in January – halfway through the Northern Hemisphere season and before the Six Nations.”

Gosper, too, points out that the IRB is working hard to iron out the contradictions and variability among officials.

“The referees sit in sessions with Joël and envision their own refereeing time and time again over a number of days, so that they can all see their own mistakes, see the differences in interpretations, and work towards a much more consistent interpretation.”

It is both refreshing and somewhat reassuring to hear one of rugby’s top match officials talk so openly about a problem that has not been readily admitted or addressed by many in the game. I have spoken to a number of leading figures in the sport in recent weeks, and the range of opinions on this particular subject is vast. Some lament the North-South divide, while others simply refute its existence.

With the introduction of the IRB’s new scrum protocols has come a potential area for more inconsistencies to develop – one look at the way Joubert, Pollock and Jaco Peyper policed the crooked feeds in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship confirms that. Equally, though, it has provided an opportunity to significantly reduce these frustrating irregularities, and help make for a more palatable and enjoyable outcome for those involved. In the eyes of Walsh, at least, the first few steps on the road to a consistent and effective refereeing standard have just been taken.

By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Coming soon – look out for Jamie’s in-depth feature on the scrum, featuring interviews with top officials, players and coaches.

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

4 thoughts on “North-South Divide: Steve Walsh Talks Interpretation, Inconsistency and Improvement

  1. It’s refreshing to hear that they’ve identified a condition (calling it a problem seems a little excessive). However more dangerous is the other split between the referees that’s becoming more and more apparent…

    There now seems to be a massive split between how, when and why to use the TMO. Some of the elite refs, Messers Wash, Rolland and Owens for example, seem to have no problem making big, crucial decisions on their own or with their on field colleagues. Right or wrong they’ll take a decision and live with it and then suffer the ire of the fans, pundits, management and players.

    You then have refs, especially in the Avia Premiership, that seem afraid to make a decision without referring to the TMO. It’s disruptive and frustrating especially to the fans and players. Some referrals for scores seem so straight forward it’s baffling as to why it was asked for, the replays showing the referee in a prime position with a better view than any camera angle are extremely frustrating.

    Add to that the literal interpretation of what the officials are asking for and being answered with is another cause for concern. Language is a strange beast so a missed word or misused word can completely change the meaning of a question or resulting decision.

    1. Hi Barry. Understand what you’re saying about excessive TMO usage being disruptive and I have to say I agree. I also think there’s an argument that over-use undermines the refs authority on the field…

      But, on the flip side, we have a good example this weekend with the Bismark de Plessis double yellow. The first yellow was a big decision that the ref took on himself, got wrong, and effectively ended the game.

      With this particular incident what I really can’t understand is why he didn’t get the TMO to check the tackle having ALREADY interuppted the game to get his ruling on the aftermath. The additional delay in checking the tackle itself would have been negligible….

      1. Didn’t want to get into the whole piece about Poite but you’re right it went a bit pear shaped. Personally I feel the second yellow should’ve been a straight red. Forearm/elbow strike to the neck area is as dangerous as a stamp to the head IMO but that’s an argument for a different day (and possibly different website).

        Not sure where I currently sit with the IRB’s reaction to it. Surely they’ve massively undermined not just their elite referee of that game but also the likes of Joel Jutge? IIRC Paddy O’Brien as head of the Elite referee panel back Wayne Barnes completely after a game changing incorrect decision during the NZ v French RWC game.

        Not appearing to back Poite is a dangerous precedent. However that said rescinding the first yellow is completely correct.

  2. There is no doubt that that there is a huge difference at the break down interpretation between Northern and Southern hemisphere referees and it is good to at least here that it is trying to be addressed.What really however, annoys me(liberal word)! as already mentioned, is the use of the TMO! To much and to often wrong(ala Poite last week end)What is the purpose of the assistant referees?. It is becoming a joke now . TMO should only be used for Try/no try etc. Read my blog. Role of TMO in Rugby!

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