The breakdown needs breaking down

Following Brendan Venter’s outburst last week and the subsequent debate over the issues raised, Andrew Daniel offers his verdict on what needs to happen.


Venter: I’ve had it up to here with referees

An old friend of mine once told that me, and I quote, “I understand women”. Obviously he got laughed at and told he was an out and out liar. The same treatment would have to be bestowed upon anyone who tells me that they understand what is happening at the breakdown at this present time within the game of Rugby Union.

On Saturday, Brendan Venter, the Saracens Head Coach launched a scathing attack on English referees. Let’s be honest though, he only said what we are all thinking, and that is that the breakdown – and more importantly how it is being refereed within this country – is killing the game. His belief is that there is complete uncertainty among referees as to what they are actually looking for at the breakdown and that decisions in this area are completely random.

“You get a penalty, then they get a penalty” he declared in his post match press conference. The more important fact that Venter brought to life is what he calls preventative refereeing. This is when a referee gives warnings rather than a straight penalty, for example, ‘release the ball’ or ‘roll away.’

“By the time the referee has told a player to stop offending, the ball is already slowed down and the defence is back in position,” Venter quoted. Then of course we end up watching 80 minutes of banal kick tennis.

The most frustrating thing about this whole situation is that the IRB have said they are not going to look at this area of the game before the 2011 World Cup. This doesn’t bode well for the future of Rugby and its spectators.

Big crowds are coming in to watch the Premiership at the moment with attendances significantly higher than ever before. With the introduction of events such as ‘Big Game’ at Twickenham and Saracens attracting 50,000 people to watch them at Wembley, rugby has never been a more accessible and attractive live sport option for the public. However, even the most hardened rugby fan will get tired of seeing the leather kicked off the ball week in week out.

Interpretation is where part of the problem lies, different penalties are being giving for very differing infringements at every ruck. That is fine, but at the next ruck it is going unpenalised and something else is being given the whistle treatment. If the referees are not sure what is happening and they have no clear definition from the powers that be then what hope have we got?

So what needs to be done? Referees need to spend more time with the coaches to review and explain their decisions after the match. This would help players and coaches understand their decisions and help to guide their training and behaviour in future games.

The IRB needs to review and add direction to the whole area of the breakdown before the 2011 World Cup, otherwise our ears are still going to be ringing with the sound of a whistle weeks after the tournament has come to its conclusion. This needs to be standardised across both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere nations rather than the ELV farce with different laws either side of the equator.

Venter will be fined for his honesty – sorry, unwelcome outburst – but it will be money well spent in my eyes as it may just see someone take some action. Finally though, if anyone does happen to know where these rules are kept I would be really grateful if you could share them with the referees and the rest of us as I could then go back to my old friend and take heed of his priceless knowledge.

By Andrew Daniel

5 thoughts on “The breakdown needs breaking down

  1. I feel that what every coach, player and spectator is looking for is consistency. Having been in the priveledged position of a club captain, albeit at Junior level, it has given me the opportunity to speak post match the referree about any concerns I or he may have encountered. The breakdown area is the topic of discussion every single week with the ref asking player advice on how he/she can improve, stating that they could target an array of infringements at the breakdown when all they want to do is let the game flow, i.e ‘Release the tackler, roll away and let the ball go’, simple, anything else and a straight pen, no warnings about hands, feet or lying on the wrongside. These boys at the top know exactly how to play these referrees, look at Messers McCaw & Burger et al, masters of their art! The IRB love them lads from the super 14 with the 50 point matches but it’s not for everyone and it is not the essence of rugby. I would love to go old skool and allow the boys up front make the tackles, ruck and maul as a contest rather than a right given away by a referrees indecision! I for one wouldn’t like to be tasked with such a challenge! I will carry on trying to decifer the rules on a Saturday over a Guinness with our friends in the middle.

  2. The rules just need 1 big, final clarification and then leave it alone. Mine would be once a tackle has been made the opposition can can try and win the ball with his/her hands. Once the ref shouts ruck formed then by implication no hands are allowed and thus it should be relatively easy from there. Tacklers not rolling away should be dealt with more harshly with only the most obvious cases not being pinged.

    I’m also not sure about ‘preventative’ refereeing. If the ref doesn’t talk to the players, at least at the start of the match, they don’t know what to expect. Fair enough if from 10/20 mins on they are doing the same thing and haven’t got the message.

    Finally, Venter should get nailed. He’s just bitter because Sarries have been worked out. Suggesting that they’ve been trying to play expansive rugby is just laughable and from what I saw on the highlights all of Leicester’s points were justified.

  3. Let’s not forget the scrum another example of where the game has become unrefereeable. The ref usually has no idea which team offended when it goes down.

  4. Personally I think it’s an important point that the refereeing of the breakdown seems to be the problem and not the law change itself. I quite like the idea of forwards having to hunt in packs again to clear out and secure the ball. The current ‘kicking tennis’, which lets face it is hardly a new phenomenum for this year, is more likely a result of teams only having to commit 2 players to a breakdown knowing that players are given an age to set the ball back. The result of this is leaving 6 forwards clogging up the backline and making defences inpenetrable and space for attacking running lines next to impossible!
    My one hope is that players and officials behave, as we would expect, in a professional and dignified manner, get there collective rugby brains together and come to a decision on the best way forward rather than playing the whole situation out in the media.
    As for Mr Venter, well done for bringing this situation to the fore, but in future please man up and speak to the man rather than whinging to the press like a pathetic footballer!

  5. Gareth – but if the current crop of refs are unable to apply the rules, don’t you think we need to look again at the rules? We could probably improve the standard of refereeing, to some extent, but I don’t think they will ever be able to handle the rules as currently written. And then when you throw in the international angle – well, it just seems like RWC’s are going to be marred by continual debtates about how refs apply the rules.

    The insight Venter gave to the review process with the teams was very interesting, and I can believe his report that the refs in a previous game acknowledged to him that they got it badly wrong many times. But that’s with the benefit of slow motion replays and several camera angles. We need a set of rules, and an approach to refereeing that provides assurance that the refs will get it right at least 90% of the time. Whether the rules need to change to allow that, or whether we need two refs for example, I don’t know, but something radical needs to happen.

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