Talking with one of my mates at work the other week, we both found ourselves feeling a bit of a disconnect in our interest for Premiership Rugby this season, despite competing against each other in fantasy rugby. I thought about that a bit over the next few days and realised that it’s not just the Premiership, I’m feeling some degree of apathy to rugby in general. Obviously not enough to stop me wanting to write about it, but enough that I’m finding myself less interested in watching everything I can over recent months.
But what’s causing this? Is it that I have reached rugby saturation due to the World Cup filling most of the usual break? Considering I’ve been known to watch 8 or 9 matches in a weekend and want to watch more, I don’t think it’s that. Is it Gloucester’s struggles this season? Well I’m used to that. Is it the frustration of watching players in the form of their life being ignored by Eddie Jones for players who don’t know the position? Potentially a little bit, but my apathy goes beyond England and the Premiership. Is it the absolute shambles of Sarries finally being found guilty of systematic cheating for years and the punishment that still doesn’t feel like it’s been dealt with right? Again, I think it’s had an impact, but my feelings go well beyond the Premiership.
Then watching the games the last few weeks, it hit me: I’m sick of watching every game get ruined by poor officiating. Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I have incredible respect for the officials and this is not an attack at them, more a point that officiating has reached a terrible level and things need to change soon in order to save the sport that I love.
What do I mean when I talk about the poor officiating? I’m not railing about seatbelt tackles being the softest of penalties, because I understand why the rules are how they are. It’s not even the prospective changes to the laws coming in, though I’m strongly against some of them. It’s the fact that officials are routinely ignoring even blatant offences, which is having a negative impact on the competitiveness of a game.
Let’s look at some examples. CJ Stander avoided punishment for taking the law into his own hands against England by striking Owen Farrell with an open hand multiple times after Farrell tried holding him in a ruck. Generally, retaliation will see the penalty reversed, while Law 9.12: “A player must not strike an opponent with the hand, arm or fist, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s)” suggests that Stander was lucky to stay on the pitch, meanwhile Dragons’ Lloyd Fairbrother and Glasgow’s Oli Kebble were both yellow carded on the same weekend for a similar flare-up. Clear cases here of different referees treating the game different and not sticking to the laws of the game. And sometime’s it’s the same referee’s interpretation changing. In Round 2 of the Six Nations, Romain Ntamack’s try against Italy came off the back of Romain Taofifenua winning a penalty at the breakdown, despite Gaël Fickou making no attempt to roll after making the tackle, something that the referee had been quick to pick up earlier in the game. The breakdown is the wild west, with jackals winning penalties despite not supporting their weight and illegal cleanouts coming in form all directions except through the gate. Players are suffering serious injuries due to this, but Ben Ryan’s calls to start refereeing the breakdown correctly fall on deaf ears – cos we all know a 50-20 kick will benefit the game more than effectively-refereed breakdowns (note the sarcasm!).
Of course, it’s not just the referee in the middle, they have an AR on each touchline and a TMO to help them make the right decisions, but so much still gets missed. James Ryan appears to have somehow avoided a citing for the most ridiculous of cleanouts against England, where he basically torpedoed himself into England players twice in one breakdown, very clearly going against Law 15.12: “Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.” In Gloucester’s recent loss to Exeter, the TMO rightly picked up a clear neck roll by Franco Mostert, which ended a promising Gloucester attack, but a later attack by Exeter was allowed to continue, with an equally clear neck roll from one of their players ignored. Gerbrandt Grobler found himself being called for a knock on as he stretched for the try line, but it was clear that the fumble was caused by an impact from Sam Simmonds, who had tucked his arm into his body and caused contact with his shoulder. It was a clear penalty try right under the referee’s nose, but was completely ignored not just by him, but also the TMO, despite it being obvious on replays.
Decisions like these change games. Going back to that game between Italy and France, the TMO called in at one point for a missed knock-on my Matteo Minozzi, but a later knock-on from a French tackler that resulted in Italy going from attacking in the French 22 to cleaning up the ball int heir own 22 was ignored, while in the same weekend, Kyle Sinckler’s blatant and cynical strip of the ball after a tackle had been completed 5m out from the England line (almost certainly a yellow card) was also ignored by all the officials and the TMO – an event that completely changed the momentum of the game as Scotland had been pressuring the England defence until that point. I also recently saw the most ridiculous of decisions as referee and TMO combined to yellow card Cheetahs centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg for a “dangerous challenge” on Leinster’s Fergus McFadden that anyone with half a brain could see was just a rugby incident. Finally in England’s U20s Six Nations loss to Ireland, a clear neck roll on England fly half George Barton was ignored in the build-up to Ireland’s final try, while an earlier England knock-on at a maul was changed to an Ireland knock-on by the TMO, despite the replays clearly showing that the Irish player had illegally swam up the side of the maul.
As much as I want my teams to win, I’m a fan of the sport first and foremost and I hate to see so many games being affected by iffy officiating.
How does all of this happen? I can only put it down to narratives being in the minds of the officials. There is a constant narrative that Italy are not good enough to deserve a place in the Six Nations, so if there’s a close (or even vaguely close-ish call) it will go against the Italians. Of course the French tackler didn’t knock the ball on, these Italians don’t know how to throw a pass. Likewise there is the narrative this season that Gloucester are struggling at the scrum, so an offence at the first scrum by Val Rapava Ruskin results in an Exeter penalty, while the following scrums for most of the match saw Fraser Balmain dominating Ben Moon (who was illegally angling in), but the scrums were just getting reset. Once officials have a narrative in their head, it is hard for them to look past that.
So why doesn’t this get called out more? Because the media also buys into these narratives. All the talk during Italy’s Six Nations losses is how they continue to lose every match in the tournament and Georgia continue to dominate in the Rugby Europe Championship, never about how Italian Rugby has been rebuilt under Conor O’Shea to start bringing the talent into the national team, who handily beat Georgia last time they faced off. When even the media is buying into the narratives, how is a casual fan of the sport meant to really see what is going on.
Right now, we have a chance to stop this. To put the focus back on the 4 officials working together to effectively police the game and clean it up. It may lead to a period of penalty-ridden games, but players and coaches will have to adapt to the laws which are already in place or we will begin to see interest wane as the sport just becomes a mess.