Controversy can be great but big decisions are needed

Sometimes, trying to define rugby can be a bit like explaining Differential Galois Theory in six words or fewer. So many moving parts and a law scripture that has certain passages shaded in grey, union can be bewildering to the uninitiated. And at Test level, there will be physical flashpoints to decipher. 

Think Cones of Dunshire with Formula One-crash velocities. 

Read more: How to watch the Six Nations wherever you are

And so this week, the idea of simplifying or streamlining has come to the fore. But really what we should be talking about is strong leadership. From the top. 

Why the desire to avoid rugby controversy has had the complete opposite effect

The game’s upper management level, as it is now, is one petrified of controversy. It’s why several layers of decision-making can decide to ban or not ban a player – think of the Owen Farrell situation ahead of the Rugby World Cup – and then a collective flip out from a passionate cohort can contribute to the sport’s governing body wading in to make a new decision on a ban.

It’s why there is the TMO Bunker add-on to the TMO system, that is already there to aid the on-field officials. It’s why a major body brings in panels for ban deliberations made up of high-powered law types from the ends of the rugby planet, as well as a smattering of former pros. 

Our sport is desperate for everything to be seen as, capital letters, Above Board. And not to upset too many people. But in running away from making big bold calls, and backing decision-makers to do that, we are actually generating controversies. 

A few months back, we had something of an exit interview with World Cup final ref Wayne Barnes, as the legendary official called time on his on-pitch career.

And he told Rugby World of what he wants for the future of the game: “What the game needs to do at the moment is decide what it wants to be. Does it want to be perfect and get every single decision right? That means a more stop-start game with less flow and less fatigue. Or do you want a game which is imperfect? Well, if so then don’t come out and criticise match officials who leave decisions on the pitch.”

And perhaps the key sentiment from him, on this, was: “Let’s look at ways of keeping the game going. Let’s only get the really big stuff (pulled up by officials).”

Barnes retires

Wayne Barnes in action at the 2023 Rugby World Cup final, his final match as a referee (Getty Images)

We’ve certainly seen some big stuff from the playing side lately. But we’re all wagging tongues about the calls around it. 

In the Scotland-France game, we got a no-try decision for a potential match-winning score that has set the agenda. In that moment, with an initial call of no score, we then had deliberations over video in which both TMO Brian MacNeice and referee Nic Berry talked round and round, at points sounding like they might edge towards a try call, before turning to the protocols and the fact they didn’t have their perfect shot of the ball on the ground. They felt bound to stick with the initial shout on the field. 

The other things that frustrated fans at the weekend was what felt like an interminable wait for scrums during England versus Wales. And more TMO checks. Lawrence Dallaglio wrote in his Sunday Times column: “I don’t like sounding like a grumpy old man, but I really am finding rugby painful to watch at the moment, more so than ever.” 

Add in the growing, painful prevalence of what has been dubbed Dupont’s Law, and we can almost feel the floating viewers turning off after scratching their heads to bleeding point. 

All of this is not to bag the officials but the game itself. Running away from risk is now such a big part of everything at the top level of rugby that you find yourself, rather ironically, really happy we have the controversy to discuss.

We must all do a job of explaining to you the tactics and the techniques of current trends. There is beauty to be found within kicking battles, and certainly on either side of them – but, when teams are good enough to execute. So far in the 2024 Six Nations, Ireland aside, we’ve not seen that consistent, high-end execution, for a whole game. Yet. It’s the Six Nations – we all, always live in hope. 

So here is a prayer for the game in general: That we heed the words of Wayne Barnes and we take the lessons from last weekend and endeavour to empower officials to step back from the buck and make big calls.

That bodies act swiftly and decisively and don’t get caught up on what an angry section of social media is screaming about. Sorry guys, but you’re the governing bodies of a major sport. No matter what positive works you do, you have to be the bad guys at certain points. 

We must all learn to live with that and get the game shifting. 

Oh, there will likely be contentious calls. Well great. We need big talking points as often as possible. Otherwise this game with so much grey actually fades into beige.

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