One of the worst aspects of the new TMO intervention on foul play is the sharp increase in players badgering referees and their assistants to take action against the opposing team. There were two glaring instances last weekend in the Premiership when two captains, Steve Borthwick (Saracens) and Geordan Murphy (Leicester), deliberately petitioned the referee in an attempt to get an opposition player yellow carded.
In Borthwick’s case it followed a heavy tackle by the Wasps flanker James Haskell which rode up from a chest hit to head high, resulting in the Saracens lock, Alistair Hargreaves, being stretchered off the field in a groggy state. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage from the tackle to Hargreaves, but the Saracens captain lost no time in suggesting to the match official that Haskell should be sent to the sidelines. Referee JP Doyle chose to ignore his advice.
Murphy was equally vociferous when Wayne Barnes, who refereed the Leicester v Northampton derby, missed a deliberate block on Anthony Allen by Ryan Lamb as the Tigers centre chased a high ball. Murphy’s barrage of advice proved more successful with Barnes binning Lamb for his sin.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the incidents in question, the real issue is the volume of ‘white noise’ on the pitch, with everyone pitching in. It has got to deafening levels with players trying to get into the ref’s ear, others sledging opponents, and the extraordinary din as defensive lines get their act together.
Among the worst offenders, however, are referees themselves – and in many ways they are the originators of the problem due to the policy of constant game management that has become the standard means of officiating. This method has cast the referee almost as a match coach, offering the players a constant stream of advice about what is acceptable and what isn’t.
In the past, when the referee was the sole arbiter of fact on the pitch, he generally gave the tersest of explanations for his decisions – such as ‘offside’ or ‘high-tackle’ – but otherwise erred on the side of keeping communication to a minimum so as not to encourage questioning and promote a mothers’ meeting every time he blew the whistle. Many refused to talk to anyone other than the two captains, and some wouldn’t even do that if a decision was being questioned.
Now referees dispense wisdom from the lawbook – or their interpretation of it – to all and sundry for the full 80 minutes, advising players on whether they are about to stray offside, when to release the ball or when to challenge for it, or even whether it’s a ruck or a maul. In the process they invariably address star players by their first names as if they are best mates, and are even prepared to debate at length why they have given a decision.
The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, and there are consequences. Sometimes you wonder whether referees should offer a counselling service as well as match guidance, because there is a danger that their teach-ins leave players with little sense of initiative – and even less knowledge of the laws.
An even more insidious consequence of the touch-feely approach is that over-familiarity has started to breed the same sort of contempt for match officials that has been the curse of football since the 1970s. The idea of a rugby referee being mobbed by a gaggle of histrionic, finger-jabbing, shouting, swearing ranters like their footballing counterparts seemed inconceivable only a few years ago, with various commentators smugly proclaiming Rugby Union’s superiority.
However, rugby’s moral high ground is in grave danger of being cut away – and, as football has learned to its cost, once respect for match officials has been undermined it is almost impossible to get it back.
The antidote has to be applied before the disease can get hold, and the only way is for zero tolerance from referees and their assistants towards any player who attempts to influence their decisions – including whether they refer an incident to the TMO. Any player who does so should automatically be yellow-carded, and while I would not make it a sending-off offence, referees should be able to give multiple yellow cards to multiple offenders.
It is clear that coaches are at best turning a blind eye to the problem, and, at worst, encouraging their players to pressurise referees, and the best remedy to that would be to leave the worst offenders having to cope with having only 12 or 13 players on the pitch for protracted periods.
It would not take long for players and coaches to recognise that trading in ‘white noise’ doesn’t pay – and if referees followed suit and cut out the chatter, then the respect for them that has been a core element in the game would also soon be restored.
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