Rugby has been shaken to the core over the last eighteen months, and not for the reasons you might think. Despite a global pandemic wiping out sport, fans being kept away from stadiums, historically poor concussion protocols reaching a boiling point, domestic sides threatened with going bankrupt and the ringfencing of the Premiership, it seems to be the refereeing debacle that has fans most furious. To be fair, with the week we've just had, who could blame this. These past few days we saw a rampant Bristol side take apart Gloucester in what should have been an exciting game. However we saw eight, yes eight, tries disallowed in one game. We also saw a red card for an attempted tip tackle and a yellow card for repeated scrum infringements (something that has never really made sense for an entertainment stand point). Also at the weekend we saw Wasps flanker Morris get given red for a shoulder on head collision with no mitigation, one that has since been through the ringer with the RFU and been found out to have clear mitigating circumstances hence a vastly reduced ban. During the Six Nations, we saw England fans and players alike gobsmacked at the refereeing against Wales from Romain Poite, with Nigel Owens even chipping in to point out inconsistencies. It's got to a point, that unless Luke Pearce is refereeing a game, my friends and I let out a collected groan and who might stood in the middle of the park. Christ above, are we turning to wendy-ball tactics in blaming the ref for our dissatisfaction?
There are so many ways a debate about Rugby refereeing could go. You can argue about player safety, professional evolution, traditional values, pretty much anything, but to be honest, is there any other argument outside of entertainment? Why do you watch sport? You watch it to be entertained; I know that's broad as a statement, but the laughing, the crying, the howls of joy, and sighs of defeat all contribute to entertainment. Rugby refereeing is a problem at the moment because it's causing confusion to constantly override these other emotions; being confused isn't particularly entertaining... Unless it's in that twisted bemusement type of way. Not being able to celebrate a single try all game because of phases that may have had something fishy about them three minutes before is not entertaining. Not being able to cheer a big hit without acknowledging the five minutes of TMO coverage straight afterwards is not entertaining. Watching reset scrum after reset scrum turn into game changing sin bins is also, not particularly entertaining. Heck, watching someone attempt intercepts has now got fans waiting with baited breath on whether they'll see that player for the rest of the game. I can't tell whether the problems stem from having too many rules, too stricter consequences, poor utilisation of refereeing support tools or just inconsistent interpretations of all three.
We are very lucky in Rugby that from a professional stand point, our referees are the best in the world. They are incredibly fit, articulate, and understand the game from a players point of view; when you compare that to the dinosaurs you see trotting about a football pitch and the current tribulations of VAR, we could expect far worse. However, I do have to keep driving this word 'inconsistency'. There are stigmas within the game that are really hurting Rugby from an inclusivity point of view, and these are only further intensified when you look at the quality of refereeing overseas. British referee's are strict, controlled and direct, but sometimes too reliant on TMO coverage and a little card hungry, French referee's understand the breakdown entirely differently, promote expansive Rugby but fall to bits at the Scrum and when very technical infringements occur, southern hemisphere refs are also controlled and understand the breakdown different again, but are guilty of letting some blatant mistakes or questionable turnovers go; how bad does that sound? How bad is it that we have to judge what a game will play out like simply based on the nationality of the referee? With new rules constantly being tested and trialled in different leagues around the world, that's only further adding fuel to this debate that the game isn't consistent.
Every other week we have a new headline about another law they want to introduce into Rugby and as a pundit, it's becoming exhausting. We have a serious ongoing, cross-generational problem in sport that young people are no longer interested in following it. A big part of that is based around accessibility, because we can't expect an 18 year old to be able to afford £120 per month worth of sporting subscriptions and a further £35 per ticket if they want to see the game live, but for folks far younger than than that, how can you sit them down and get them to concentrate on a hugely bloated 80 minutes when there is a penalty being called every few minutes. During the Six Nations, England gave away a penalty every 5.2 minutes in their first three games, once you factor in the opposition penalties, there was a penalty on average every 3.6 minutes. When you consider that each penalty wastes a minute on average, England gave away 46 penalties in three games, 46 minutes worth of penalties, more than half a games worth of waiting on penalty decisions. Also, please don't take this as a plea for England to be treated fairer by ref's, as I couldn't be further from that camp, but if you're a 10 year old England supporter watching England vs Scotland this year, you must have been bored to tears.
My fiancé is a relatively new Rugby fan, having watched the game on and off for four years and seriously over the last two years, however even she has had her interest wain when watching major games this season; she also finds herself pretty confused on some of the new interpretations. That gives me the best insight into what a new fan is thinking when they are watching the sport; her confusion is leading to her interest falling by the wayside.
I could spend hours writing and writing, filling pages on pages of different viewpoints on refereeing, but it would just be dissecting overarching points I've already made. The current set of rules have been created with entertainment barely factored in, and are over indulgent and inconsistently refereed, sounds like a mess that needs fixing right?