Scotty Stevenson: A law unto itself, and tough for refs

For referees like Nigel Owens, gut feeling is crucial in interpreting rugby's laws. Photo / Getty Images
For referees like Nigel Owens, gut feeling is crucial in interpreting rugby's laws. Photo / Getty Images

Some sports are simple to understand. And then there is rugby. That's not a bad thing. Most of us fully appreciate the fact that rugby is a breakdown wrapped in a scramble inside a scrum reset.

It is a mysterious sport, built upon mystifying decisions. It remains, for instance, the only oval-ball code in which the ball remains in play once the player in possession has fallen to ground.

What sort of masochist creates a game like this? Bless him, he knew he was on to a winner.

Rugby, at its most fundamental, doesn't sound complicated. The objective is to get the ball over the opposition try line as many times as possible, while stopping the other team doing the same thing. There's nothing overly taxing intellectually about that.

No, the objectives are the easy part. Where things become confusing is in rugby's rigid adherence to a little thing called the laws.

Seriously? What other game has laws? Most sports are happy with rules. Rules are easy. You play by them or you pay the price. You are offside or you are not offside. The ball goes forward or it does not.

Rules are black and white, not open to interpretation. Laws, on the other hand, are infinitely interpretable, and invariably grey.

Rules have rulers. Laws require lawyers.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) rugby does not have lawyers. It has referees. Sometimes it has a lawyer on the field who thinks he's the referee, but mostly, it has plain old referees. Pour souls. They would have a better chance of finishing Infinite Jest than memorising the entire Laws of Rugby, a document that rivals the giant American novel in length and could probably bear the same title.

Refereeing is a complicated business. At any stage there are 30 moving parts on the field, with any number of outcomes originating from a single phase.

Throw into the mix an ever-expanding collection of minor technicalities, each of which can be obligated, mitigated, or litigated, and the constant need to update the players in-game on their compliance or otherwise to the specific laws which currently apply to the specific part of the game in which they are participating in and ... well, is it any wonder when things go pear-shaped?

Unlike those sports that can boast only a rule book, rugby, by virtue of its laws, necessitates a requirement for refereeing law interpretation based on gut feel. When something doesn't look right on a footy field, it usually isn't.

The best referees are the ones who can harness this instinct; an instinct built upon hours of on-field work at all levels of the game.

The referees we consider the best in the business all have this feel for what's going on out there. They understand what a team is trying to do, and how another team is trying to stop them doing it.

They also understand that every game has its own momentum; that when teams are under pressure they are likely to offend. Their job may be to make judgments on points of law, but there must also be a certain amount of forensic work undertaken to underpin every decision.

As complicated a job as this is, the best referees seem to manage the task.

And they manage it well. The best manage it with great communication - both with the players on the field and their assistant referees. It is amazing that the concept of regular refereeing teams - a referee and two assistants who work together on most games - was really only formulated over the last 18 months.

At least the sport now has something approximating a regular, on-the-same-page, refereeing unit. The best referees should always be the ones with the whistle. The next best should be the ones with the touch flags.

The ones deemed, rightly or wrongly, not good enough to hold either, are confined to the TMO booth - where they have full powers to preside over almost every crucial decision in the game.

Some sports are simple to understand. And then there is rugby.

- NZ Herald

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