Columnist Paul Williams gives his verdict on the denouement of *that* Bledisloe Cup match – and has a few ideas to clamp down on time-wasting
Opinion: Rugby is refereed differently in the last minute
Rugby is a weird sport. We all know that. As someone who has written a book on the laws of rugby, albeit a not too serious book, some of the pages make quantum theory look like a GCSE in drama. Indeed, some of the language used in rugby’s lawbook is so open to interpretation that it makes you wonder whether rugby is, in fact, an artistic pursuit, not a sport.
You need only watch the commentary/punditry from seasoned international players, and on occasion referees, to see that even at elite level there is little consensus on refereeing decisions. And that’s before you get onto Twitter.
Even if you do understand the laws, you must then put them into practice, which is impossible. An officiating team, with referee, two assistants and TMO, will never be able to fully adjudicate a ruck where up to 16 players are moving around like muscular gnats.
Then comes the really difficult bit, the bit that Australia fell foul of against New Zealand in the Rugby Championship: all of these laws change after 79 minutes!
The most complicated lawbook in the history of sport is reliant not only on interpretation, but time and the closeness of the contest.
If in the final minutes of a game, one team is 21 points clear, the lawbook remains as is. But if it is within one score or less, the lawbook condenses like some old leather-bound tomb from Harry Potter, where some of the laws become far more concentrated and potent.
Referee Mathieu Raynal came under intense criticism for his decision against Wallaby fly-half Bernard Foley in the closing minutes of the first Bledisloe Cup match in Melbourne. Raynal felt that the clock was being eroded unnecessarily and that it was deemed serious enough to cancel Australia‘s penalty and award a scrum to the All Blacks, from which the visitors scored. The Wallabies lost the game, then the debate ensued.
The decision was, of course, a big call. There are very few refs in world rugby who are bold enough to make that decision. But since the game went professional and especially since the game went fully ‘TMO’, rugby is refereed differently in the last minute.
Rugby is a game where time-wasting is easily hidden. Scrums, lineouts, kicks at goal and restarts are all facets of the game where time can be milked like a clockwork cow. Retaining possession in the final minutes of a game is also easy if you bend the laws of the ruck and maul, particularly the ruck. Until ‘sealing off’ was properly enforced, a team could wrap up possession, through pick-and-goes, like a cold sausage roll in clingfilm.
In many ways, it’s rugby’s overly interpretive set of laws in the first 79 minutes that makes their sharpened focus in the final minute so much more important.
Raynal’s decision was portrayed as the first time this type of last-minute, pressure-induced chaos has ever happened. That exact decision may not have been given before, but how many games have been decided in the last minute by a player making a crazy decision to kick, or not, for fear of committing an offence or conceding possession?
Many a supporter has had a Monday morning conversation about whether ‘they should have kicked the ball clear, not carried it’, only for the following week to hear the words ‘they should have carried the ball, not kicked it clear’.
There’s also the question of rugby intellect, which is a posh phrase for cleverer ways to cheat. Even if Australia were wasting time deliberately, risking it with a line kick, in your own 22, was not the place to do it.
Foley could have kicked to touch immediately, then the whole team could have sauntered towards the true king of rugby time-wasting – the lineout. Once there, they could have tied some shoelaces, wiped the ball a few times, misheard a few ‘calls’ and watched the clock dribble down.
Even if they were pinged for time-wasting at the lineout, New Zealand would have been 50m away from the Wallabies’ tryline and multiple phases away from a scoring opportunity.
Whilst thousands of characters have been tapped out in anger on social media, nothing will change that result. But that doesn’t mean it has to happen again.
There are practical measures to prevent time-wasting/perceived time-wasting in rugby, particularly at restarts and set-piece. Perhaps the clock shouldn’t start on a penalty kick until it is kicked. You wouldn’t then need to monitor the length of time taken to execute the kick and you wouldn’t require expensive countdown clocks situated in stadiums.
The same can be said of scrums and lineouts: the clock shouldn’t start until the ball has left either – you can also guarantee that scrum resets would fall in number as a result.
What do you think about clamping down on time-wasting? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your views.
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