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.
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.
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.
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.