Transparency Needed by IRB to Fix Poor Rugby Refereeing

James MortimerAnalyst IDecember 3, 2008

Both the approach of ref’s boss Paddy O’Brien and “confusing new laws” are contributing to poor performances from the men controlling the game.

One should ask the question upfront, why are all these new rules in place? The general consensus is that it is to keep the ball in play. Never has the IRB officially said why these rules are in place.

It is not to make the game more entertaining according to IRB referee manager Paddy O’Brien. He has remarked that the goal of making the game entertaining is a myth. 

Many have thought that the goal is to change the significance of kicking in general play—based on the changes on the law based on bringing the ball back into your 22.  Again, O’Brien says this has nothing to do with the ELV’s—stating that general kicking is increasing as it is the only way to break defences.

"Sure, there is a lot of kicking and that is down to other reasons. Until the referees really get harsh at refereeing people on their feet at the tackle players will not commit to the breakdown and the only way to break defences is by kicking the ball”, O’Brien—tries in vain to explain.

Until the referees he says? Isn’t what the referees do on the field controlled ultimately by O’Brien?

A big concern is that there have been different sets of ELV’s, a hybrid version and a global version. Officially the hybrid rules have 16 variations, the global rules 13. The major difference is that at the breakdown, the hybrid rules—seen throughout the Tri Nations, Currie Cup and ANZC—award a free kick, whereas the global rules—played in the north and throughout the autumn internationals—give a penalty for ruck infringements.

Even though the IRB and O’Brien neglect and refuse to mention why, I believe that the ruck—arguably the key aspect of rugby union—is the focus of these new laws. 

But the ruck is an issue and as clear as mud. All manner of coaches, from provincial to international are having problems with referee interpretations. Most recently, Rob Andrew is asking the IRB for clarification regarding England’s four yellow cards against the All Blacks. This follows the pattern set by Peter De Villiers, Biarritz coach Jack Isaac, and Harlequins coach Dean Richards. 

The most consistent complaint is different interpretations by different referees week to week. If one week players can collapse on the ruck (a basic tactic to shield ball), but then the next week are penalised for it, what do they do the following week?

Over 70 percent of infringements are based at the ruck.

Worst of all, there are contradictory levels of punishment for various offences. Some referees issue yellow cards, some refuse to explain the problem, and others have a pigeon holed view of how the game should be played.

So since the IRB and O’Brien continue to behave like children and provide no lucidity—the referee’s Lensbury conference was held early November, have we heard any results from it? No—I will attempt to come up with very simple solutions to our problems.

Be Obvious  


Let the coaches meet with the referee as a compulsory course before a game. Let the official explain clearly, what he will be looking for, and what he will be harsh on.

Issue clear mandates


One IRB concern was that the ball was being fed into the scrum crooked—this was enforced by O’Brien. Have we seen any officials penalise teams for this (they all do it)?  If you say such a thing, back it up on the field. Trust me the players will quickly get the point.

If you have an international conference, let’s tell players and fans alike what the results are.

Enforce the basic laws, and tell the players from the first minute.


ELV’s, global, hybrid, whatever! There are basic tenets to rugby union. If you leave your feet, or are on the ground, you are out of the game—is one of the principle laws. How often do we see players do this? When you are tackled, you must release the ball, and so on.

From the first ruck, if need be, call the captains, and tell them how you intend to police. Rugby for all its complications is beautiful when it flows. 

Warn, then issue cards


Cards are the best way for players to listen. But make sure they know why, and make sure it is done if the game is not being played properly of fairly. 

Ensure captain’s can question


It must be the right of the captain to question the official. Referees should not tell captains to just walk away. If a team is being penalised, explain why. If they do it again, be firmer, but then if it continues, follow the previous directive. 

But a captain must be able to enquire and communicate.

Make referees accountable


O’Brien, don’t back up every referee irrespective of their performance. If they do something wrong, make sure it is known, privately or publicly that it is wrong. Otherwise, who is correcting the referees? Are they being debriefed and told their mistakes?

If it’s not cardinal, let it go


Remember referee, it is a game, and a game is to be watched. If it’s not really affecting the game or is not affecting one team negatively—let it go, and let us watch. 

Because Paddy O’Brien, you might not want it to be, but we want the game to be more entertaining.