Many of them are incredulous – and incensed – that putting the ball in straight at the scrum, one of Rugby Union’s most fundamental and easily applied laws, is being relentlessly ignored by elite referees.
The latest evidence came in the opening round of the Six Nations, and it did not get more brazen than the scrum in the fifth minute of Scotland’s game against Ireland at Murrayfield. At an Irish put-in, with the scrum nowhere near ‘stable and square’ as the laws stipulate, scrum-half Conor Murray fed the ball directly into his own second row.
French referee Romain Poite looked on impassively as the ultimate crooked feed ensured Irish scrum ball. It was a case of ‘sod the laws, play on…’
At Twickenham there was more of the same with Baptiste Serin, making his first start for France at No.9, allowed to get away with murder by referee Angus Gardner. The Aussie official was either oblivious to the laws, or ignoring them, as Serin fed the ball into his own scrum at a 45-degree angle time after time. By contrast, England scrum-half Ben Youngs made a half-hearted attempt at a correction, only taking a 30-degree liberty. Gardner’s inaction suggested he couldn’t care less what either did. There is a serious disconnect here between many supporters of the game, and match officials who, with the support of administrators and their broadcast partners, are refusing to apply the laws. This sort of clandestine action, where certain laws are applied and others ignored, will have repercussions in totally undermining the authority of referees.
If that happens, people could soon ask what the point is in watching Rugby Union, let alone paying to do so.
The set-piece, whether scrum or lineout, is being turned into a semi-contest. At the scrum, the World Rugby referee ‘protocol’ allowing a scrum-half to take a half-step towards his own scrum before putting the ball in – supposedly straight – has been a disaster. The total non-refereeing of the put-in so far in the Six Nations is the proof.
When I asked World Rugby if they intended to take action a spokesman responded: “The referees have been instructed to ensure a credible feed (at the scrum) in accordance with law, and coaches have been reminded of their team’s obligations in this area.”
They are already behind the curve. The not-straight rot has spread to the lineout, where hookers take a sideways step towards their own forwards and throw it down their own line rather than into the gap separating them from their opponents. It is another variation on turning the set-piece into a win-your-own-ball restart, rather than a contest for possession.
Where’s the skill in that? If an American Football quarterback like Tom Brady can thread a ball through the eye of a needle from 60 metres, our hookers should raise their game. Unlike Brady they have to throw only ten to 15 metres to a vertical target rather than one travelling at the speed of an Olympic sprinter.
The intractable problem facing World Rugby is that elite referees are arguing that they do not want to be responsible for shop-window internationals being ruined by them constantly whistling for set-piece infringements.
I disagree. International referees should be instructed that the line has to be redrawn down the middle. World Rugby should give international coaches and their players due warning of the time and date when the set-piece laws will be reapplied stringently, with the club game to follow suit.
My belief is that pro-players are good enough, and are paid enough, to be expected to adapt very quickly. The same applies to professional referees. It is simply a question of will – and if it takes a weekend or two of disruption to drum the message home, the time could not have been spent better.