Scotty Stevenson: Referee rulings require explanation

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Warren Whiteley of the Lions argues with referee Chris Pollock. Photo / Getty
Warren Whiteley of the Lions argues with referee Chris Pollock. Photo / Getty

Rugby fans can accept that a referee will, from time to time, get things wrong and they will, a little more grudgingly, accept the television match official (TMO) will occasionally make a complete mess of it too, despite having access to every conceivable camera angle and the benefit of slow motion and time.

The reason rugby fans will accept these things is that respect for a referee's decision is written into the folklore of the game, coached from the youngest age, and generally taken as gospel. The referee's decision is final - yes, we get that - but surely some of these decisions require some explanation.

Acceptance of the human element in decision-making is all well and good, and it's quite legitimate for rugby to pound this message home at every opportunity, but how can we get greater understanding of the game's myriad confusing laws if contentious decisions are not openly discussed?

Surely, it is better to have the debate than to have no debate at all. The most high-profile TMO decision of the opening fortnight saw Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara awarded a try after slow-motion replays seemed to indicate that his teammate Ardie Savea had made a small knock-on just before throwing the final, try-assist pass.

TMO Shane McDermott asked to see the replay in real time, and adjudged the play legitimate, and therefore allowed the on-field referee to award the try.

It became the biggest issue in New Zealand rugby that week and certainly the most talked-about decision of the round as far as local fans were concerned.

According to high-level sources within Sanzar, McDermott's decision was ratified by his superiors the very next day, and yet not one public statement was made regarding why it was ratified, why the process was accurate, and why the decision was a good one.

A week's worth of debate and angst from fans could well have been avoided if the very same message McDermott apparently received was given to fans.

In Cape Town, Stormers loose forward Siya Kolisi was sinbinned and a game-changing penalty try awarded to the Sharks when TMO Marius Jonker adjudged Kolisi to have kicked the ball out of the hands of Sharks halfback Cobus Reinach as he reached forward to score a try.

I wondered at the time whether the act was deliberate, and I wonder still whether that even mattered in the decision-making process. The reason I am still at a loss to explain the decision is that nothing has been publicly communicated regarding the interpretation of the law. Why?

Just this weekend, the Stormers were the beneficiaries of a TMO decision to award winger Dillyn Leyds a try, even though it seemed fairly clear that Leyds had, in fact, lost control of the ball as he reached to score.

Leyds himself was the most bemused by the end decision, having already conceded to his teammates that he thought it unlikely he had scored. If the TMO saw something in the replays that pertained to a specific law or interpretation, why not clarify that with the fans?

One referee, who wished to remain anonymous, said referees are under intense pressure to follow process, which at times can obscure outcome. He told me that TMOs in particular have been told to "sell" their decisions to the public when they go back to the on-field referee. He also told me that in one of the above cases, the TMO was told that his decision was absolutely correct, but he didn't communicate it as well as he should. Really? Surely the selling of decisions should be made before the season starts, by the people who are reinterpreting rugby's laws year on year.

Surely if the fans understood these interpretations pre-season, they would be willing to accept the outcomes. And if they were told why decisions had been made afterward, they may be more willing still.

Acceptance of a referee's calls is fundamental to rugby. But if you want that acceptance, then people need to be informed, educated and communicated with. After all, an explanation is always harder to argue with than a decision.

- NZ Herald

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