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Jeff Probyn: End this cult of ‘superstar’ refs and sort out the scrum

 Steve WalshIf there is one thing that has made this Six Nations Championship more memorable than most, it is the controversy that has surrounded the referees. In almost every game there has been at least one moment where the referee has failed to make the right choice and that has unfairly impacted on the results of the games.

Whether last week’s failure of Steve Walsh to penalise an outplayed Irish scrum, or Craig Joubert not going to the fourth official in the England-France game, allowing a blatantly offside Tuilagi to score a vital try, all the referees have come in for criticism, and yet it all started so well.

The first week of the Championship was a fantastic show piece for the game with three great games refereed with empathy and very little controversy (except at the scrum engagement) by Northern Hemisphere referees, Nigel Owens, Alain Rolland and Romain Poite.

It may just be a coincidence that the introduction of Southern Hemisphere referees saw more controversy surrounding their games than our home grown men – but it is something that should be looked at. Particularly as Paddy O’Brien, the head of the refereeing board at the IRB, has set his stall on trying to get a consistent standard interpretation of the laws across the rugby world.

I have to say that, judging by the mess that is the scrum and the confusion at breakdowns, where neither side seems to know when, if, or why a whistle will be blown, he has failed.

It has to be said that failure of referees to manage the engagement of the scrum is changing the dynamics of the game and removing one of the major pillars of the sport.

Every time the referee signalled a scrum during these Six Nations games you could almost feel the crowd groan in the certain knowledge that it would not be completed.

Instead, virtually all ended in a random free-kick or penalty for either side as the referee decided that one side had gone early or failed to bind in the correct position.

What puzzles me is why the refs are so fussy about when and how the engagement should take place and then punish a nano-second of anticipation with a penalty or a free-kick, and yet the ball can be put almost into the second row and they don’t blow for a crooked feed.

The random nature of referee interpretation has changed the way the game is played and how players approach it.

The games are becoming less about attack and more about defence, less about adventure and more about a pragmatic approach that says the less we try, the fewer penalties we might incur and that is backed up by the try-scoring statistics.

Since 2000 there has been a steady fall in the number of tries that have been scored from 75 in 2000 (five per game) to just 49 in 2012, which is an average of just 3.1 try per game.

While at the same time the number of collapsed scrums has more than doubled to almost 50 per cent (49 in every 100 scrums) with referees awarding free kicks or penalties in 39 per cent of cases.

Interestingly, these levels of collapsed scrums occur only in tier one games (tier two are 50 per cent lower) which either means that the props at the top of the game are far less skilful than those below or that the referees are the problem.

I know it’s not scientific but I have watched a lot of the old games from the Seventies through to the late Nineties and there are nowhere near the number of collapsed scrums or penalties awarded in those games which allows the game to be played without the stop/start stuttering of collapse and reset that we see today.

At that time, the referee was not in control of the engagement, he called the scrums together but it was up to the front rows to control their engagement and stabilise the scrum in a stationary position.

What putting the ref in charge has done is increase the risks to props of not getting into the right position because they are forced to engage, ready or not, on pain of a free-kick or penalty being awarded against them.

If they get it wrong they collapse early so as to make the referee either reset the scrum or take a random guess as to who was to blame. The referees have been encouraged to penalise, in an attempt to show that they are in control which wouldn’t be a problem if they got it right but they don’t.

As a result, a number of the games in this year’s Championship have turned on poor decision-making by the referees and that is a cardinal sin.

In this week’s build up to the Wales-England finale most of the comment was about the choice of referee, Steve Walsh, with a number of commentators alluding to an anti-English bias against him, I have to say I doubt that he is biased, although I do think he is a bit of a ‘homer’.

That said, a referee should not be the focus of attention either before, during or after a game, if he is, he has obviously got it wrong somewhere.

The best referees are those that nobody notices, where the game flows and the referee is just there to point out the mistakes, restart the game by setting the scrum or lineout and allow play to continue.

O’Brien instigated the referee-led engagement at the scrum and has overseen its subsequent failure; he seems to have created a cult of superstar referees who believe they are what the public are paying to see.

It’s now up to him to give the game back to the players and the fans.

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