Referees to Blow ‘Clear and Obvious’

Following our debate on yellow cards last week, Nick Heath was invited by the RFU to speak to Ed Morrison about this and other parts of the game.

The laws of rugby have always been subject to debate, trial and change but in the last nine months we’ve seen an alternative way of interpreting the game which has avoided having to change the pages in the book.  Head of Elite Referees, Ed Morrison spoke at Twickenham last week about several areas that have come under scrutiny and how they will be refereed to improve the game, its players and spectators.  It’s guaranteed that like taking your coat off in a cold room, initially you wont like it but in time you’ll feel the benefit.  Ed Morrison explains:


The underlying theme that accompanies the IRB’s ‘directives’ is that referees have been instructed with the idiom to only blow when an offence is ‘clear and obvious’.  The directives are to allow more space around offsides, a fairer contest for the ball and to allow the attacking team to be less afraid to take the ball into contact, a huge problem at the start of last season that resulted in endless ping-pong kicking contests.


In terms of offside a winger or full-back might kick down-field; if any player infront of him takes any steps forward at all until their opponents play the ball or they have been put onside, they will be pinged.  We were shown some clear examples where some lazy lolloping forwards slowly moved forwards whilst waiting to be put onside, impacting on the attacking options of the defensive catcher.

The Maul

Allowing for the minor chance that a reminiscing old lock decides to return to the heady days of a good rolling maul, his two accomplice props or whoever takes their role are now the keen target of the referee’s whistle.  Too often a line-out throw would be caught, the player comes back to his feet with his back to his opponents and two players would run to that side to protect him as they trundle forwards.  This is rightly deemed as not allowing your opponents to engage in a fair contest for the ball as they cannot even reach the ball carrier and will therefore be penalised.


Morrison was keen to point out that since they have instructed their referees to reclaim the scrum from the eager front rows, the number of resets has already gone down this season from an average of 31 last year to 13 in the Aviva Premiership.  Their change of view?  Zero tolerance.  Teams must wait for the ‘engage’ and referees must be slightly slower and more deliberate in their announcing of ‘Crouch, Touch, Pause… Engage!”  If the players jump the gun and it’s clear and obvious, penalty time.

The Tackle

Possibly the most difficult part to referee, and one that will probably have the biggest number of you shouting from the stands or at the television is the new directive on the tackle.  However, it’s this that is likely to have the greatest effect on the attacking flow of the game and is hoped will negate the dire rugby that kicked off last season. 

Where you may expect a penalty for ‘holding on to the ball’ awarded to the tackler, on his feet, trying to wrestle the ball, there is now the very real chance that he could be penalised.  The new interpretation decrees that the tackler must visibly (good luck) release the player before they can then attempt to regain the ball.  It is this split second that should allow a good attacker the time he needs to roll/present the ball to his supporting players or that will not hinder a good defender in his attempts to force a turnover.  Watching the videos on this one was extraordinary.  As much as all of us in the room understood it, we couldnt call it correctly once.

More Whistle

One area that I was a little concerned about was when Morrison announced that there would be less advice and more whistle.  I stuck out my pouted lip and suggested that the days of hearing Spreaders and even the more modern Wayne Barnes deliver their advice to players mid-game in their westcountry accents was one of the things I think we all used to enjoy, and that ultimately allowed the game to flow.  It seems those days are over.  The Head of Elite Referees is clear and obvious himself about the fact that these are professional players we’re dealing with now.  “If ‘number 7’ waits to be told to roll away then he’s got away with being there a moment or two longer and he’s gaining an advantage – he knows what he’s doing, he’s not stupid and we wont stand for it anymore.”  Not sure I agree with the stupid comment but I take the point.

As Morrison announced promotions for several younger up and coming referees, it’s reassuring to know that the game’s best interests really are at the heart of everything that the RFU and more crucially, the IRB get up to.  So it might take a little while for us to fully digest the interpreted tweaks but we’ve seen an exceptional Tri-Nations and a great start to the Aviva Premiership  – the proof is in the pudding.

You can hear more from Ed Morrison in this week’s Rugby Blog Podcast, out on Thursday 16th Sept.

9 thoughts on “Referees to Blow ‘Clear and Obvious’

  1. Great stuff, honestly fascinating.

    Seems I again though disagree with you! Where you say

    “I stuck out my pouted lip and suggested that the days of hearing Spreaders and even the more modern Wayne Barnes deliver their advice to players mid-game in their westcountry accents was one of the things I think we all used to enjoy, and that ultimately allowed the game to flow”

    I hated that, really genuinely hated that. The constant ‘roll away 7, roll away, roll awa… thank you” used to annoy me no end. They were cheating, knew they were, but would gain an advantage by doing so waiting for the ref to ping them. The amount of times you would hear that, or ‘hands off’ etc – when the player was cheating in a way that should be a penalty but the ref felt he should warn him first, I found incredibly frustrating

    Either the player knows the rules and is trying to cheat, or doesn’t and really should. As the RFU said these are professional players now.

  2. Yeah, I know it’s naive to think that professional sportsmen arent going to try and cheat to gain an advantage, I guess I preferred to think it didnt happen! Not in our sport!!

    Cue Dean Richards etal. It’s probably overdue that the refs take a harder line.

  3. This season I have seen a few games. Apart from one match when the ref started with the new way of officiating, he slipped back to last season, the officials have learnt how to give us a game we can enjoy. If this carries on more people will pay to watch, and the “streetwise” players will have to change there ways. Keep the improvements and we will see how it goes by Christmas.

  4. Great article Nick, really interesting.

    Seen evidence of a couple of the changes come into play this season already, the offside from the kick being a notable one I remember from the first weekend. It’ll be interesting to see how much the refs take this guidance to heart (as per Iain’s comment) and whether anything changes throughout the season. We’ve had a cracking start to this season with some expansive rugby, so long may it continue.

  5. Rugby Nick, I agree with you on that. I think it was termed ‘preventative refereeing’ and if it was annoying to watch it was ten times more annoying to play with. By the time the ref has told the player twice, the player’s work was done, the ball successfully slowed. It promoted cynicism and destructive rather than constructive rugby. The ref should call ‘ruck’ or ‘hands off’ once and anyone who doesn’t respond deserves to be pinged.

    My concern with the new directive at the breakdown is that it skews too far in the direction of the attacking team. The natural extension of that is it becomes so hard to turn the ball over without infringing that the defence will stop committing anyone at all to the breakdown and will string out across the field. It will therefore be nigh on impossible to suck players in and create space and we are left with something akin to rugby league (before any League fans dive in that’s not to criticise league, just to say that union is a very different sport and should remain so).

    The All Blacks and Australia showed that defences are currently still able to benefit ffrom being ultra-aggressive at the breakdown, hopefully it will stay that way. And hopefully we up here can improve sufficiently in this area such that we don’t get slaughtered.

  6. Only doing this as a thought exercise so not 100% I agree with what I am saying but…

    Wouldn’t fanning out and not competing create the opportunity for missmatches to be developed more easily?

    Wouldn’t it also ensure that popped ball from contact would enable a cleaner break (no bunched collection to stop the resulting break)?

    Wouldn’t it also ensure that fast rucking would clear out the nearest one or two opponents and so ensure a gap to run into (fast rucking being a big difference in union vs what is available in league – as well as less panicing about the offload).

    I’m unsure which direction defences will take tbh – I thought the 3N was very hit and miss there too (and they’d had the Super 14 to practice on)

  7. I certainly don’t agree with what you re saying, Nick.

    Defences tend to fan out because it makes it easier for the defending team. You might get a mismatch, but there would be two or three other defenders there to help, and any gaps around the contact area would also close quickly.

    The Tri-Nations has shown that players can still compete for the ball. They just have to be on their feet, which NH players aren’t quite so good at. It obviously helps if you are a rock-solid lump of muscle like David Pocock, but this is certainly an area in which we need to improve.

  8. 1/2 way through Scotland- SA.match. Wow I love rugby, I also love it when it is hard and fair.
    The bokke are not sticking to there guns and has after 5 min changed to 1 tackle and the rest watch.
    Also kicking away the possesion and not out as they should.
    What is however a greater corncern in International rugby is the standard of the referee, Mr Dickonson. You should be ashamed of your openly errors. Unfortuanately most of them are one sided.
    I would not consider you for a grade R primary match.

  9. 12 min left of the match, wow Stuart Dickonson, You are just so pathetic, you will be grilled, once again ,for spoiling the match and be demoted ,once again.

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