Rugby Union referees have as much influence on matches as each of the
players on the field, and it's not good for the game, writes Tom
If players can't understand the rules of rugby, then fans have little chance of doing so [GETTY]
I am a liar. For years I have been telling all and sundry I am a self-confessed sport tragic. 'You name it, I follow it', I proudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen.
But last weekend my true colours were revealed. I am a fraud. Hell, I'm paid to follow sport and offer some sort of insightful analysis on it, but for the life of me and with my wife as witness, I simply could not see out the Brumbies/Lions Super 14 match – and by all reports this was one of the better games so far this season.
That I preferred to watch a taped episode of So You Think You Can Dance – a heads up to said spouse for that one – is neither here nor there, but perhaps is an indictment on the state of a code that once professed to be 'the running game'. No less, 'the game they play in heaven'.
At this point it's worth noting that the Waratahs tried to play the running game during their recent two-match tour of South Africa and were suitably spanked. They resorted to the more en vogue penalty-milking, point-scrounging game on the weekend, got the result, then were fittingly booed off the park by their own fans. I know, I could hear the chorus of discontent from my balcony as Bonny Lithgow delivered a similarly scathing verdict to one of the aspiring Dance contestants.
Herein lies my point: rugby has become so bogged down in its own rules, and what's more the way a referee interprets them, that a game which was once the domain of the fleet of foot, the fast of hand and the sharp of wit, has become as exciting as a State Dept Recovery notice.
During the Brumbies match referee Steve Walsh became fed up with the Lions scrum infringements so he awarded a penalty try. I thought it ironic that the first points of the match came from a referee, who, by sheer virtue of the number of infringement rules at the breakdown and in the scrum, had inadvertently become the most important person on the field.
The ref dictates the play and, with so many things 'open to the referee's interpretation', governs which way the momentum will sway and what is right and wrong. I saw more close-ups of Walsh during 20 minutes of the Brumbies match than I've seen of the referee in an entire NRL season. By the way, this was a match that featured some of the country's best rugby talent, such as Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom.
Sure, I've got thoughts on what the code can do to fix this mess, (for a start reduce the value of penalty kicks) but that rant is for another blog.
Suffice to say, the game's arbiters are making it very difficult for sport geeks like me to lay any sort of claim to being a 'purest' when I can't even stomach an entire match.
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