Does ‘retrospective refereeing’ do the game any good?
You should never underestimate the power and influence of the Six Nations.
It is without doubt the sport’s most valuable asset outside of the Rugby World Cup in terms of the audience it attracts, the promotional potential it provides and its power to engage fans old and new.
England’s narrow 12-6 victory over Wales attracted an impressive UK TV audience of 6.4m to underline the appeal of what is billed as ‘rugby’s greatest championship’.
That kind of popularity makes it imperative that the sport capitalises on the opportunity but unfortunately that was not the case at Twickenham where the officials and not the players stole the headlines.
The decision to rule out a try for Wales’ Gareth Anscombe when replays suggested he had won a race with England’s Anthony Watson to touch the ball down in-goal sparked a row that continues to rumble on either side of the Severn Bridge.
The ruling will have confused the most ardent of fans and, crucially, will have also left casual observers scratching their heads and re-thinking any plans to take their relationship with the sport to the next level.
At least one camera angle appeared to confirm the try but it did not offer enough evidence of a score for Television Match Official Glenn Newman who informed referee Jerome Garces of his decision and who in turn denied the Welsh what would have been a crucial try in what turned out to be a low-scoring encounter.
Perhaps fearing the fall out and subsequent impact on the image of the game, and their handling of it, World Rugby would later admit to Wales that an error had been made by the officiating team. Although not unprecedented, it was a headline-grabbing move that does not sit well with all.
It was not a public confession like the statement issued following the controversial finale to Australia’s 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final victory over Scotland. On that occasion, referee Craig Joubert was singled out for incorrectly awarding a penalty to Australia that allowed Bernard Foley to kick the Wallabies to a last-gasp 35-34 victory.
This time, World Rugby referees’ boss Alain Rolland spoke to Wales coach Warren Gatland privately as part of the ‘continual dialogue’ between coaches and officials during any international window.
However, news of the apology was shared with the media by Wales assistant coach Rob Howley and you sense that information will have only seen the light of day with World Rugby’s blessing.
It was similar to the ‘private’ apology that was reportedly issued by Rolland to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen after scrum-half Aaron Smith was yellow-carded during his side’s victory over Ireland in Dublin back in 2016.
England head coach Eddie Jones is certainly not a fan of what he called ‘retrospective refereeing’ and firmly believes that the full time whistle should signal not just the end of the game but also finger-pointing at referees.
“I just think that once the game’s done and dusted that’s the game,” he told reporters ahead of his side’s Championship against Scotland in Edinburgh.
“You can’t have retrospective refereeing of decisions being done. The game’s done and dusted, so we’ve got to trust the referees and respect their integrity.”
“When I say respect the referee, that’s the TV process as well. You leave it at that, and then you get on with it. One side’s won, one side’s lost.”
It will be interesting to see if Jones takes a similar stance if his side are denied a try in a game of equal importance or even maybe a World Cup Final that could not only jeopardise a result but his job prospects.
But his points worthy of debate – are you doing more damage than good by revisiting and revising such decisions? What does World Rugby hope to gain?
Elite officials are of course subjected to the same kind of performance analysis as leading players but just as a leading coach would not publically castigate a player for a costly mistake, World Ruby should not shame their referees, assistants and Television Match Officials in such a way.
Closer analysis of England’s win, and most other games, would probably provide evidence of many infringements that either went unpunished or were incorrectly given – should World Rugby offer an apology for every such error?
Of course not, which makes the decision to publicly place a black mark against Newman’s name, and by association that of Garces, all the more concerning and not just for those individuals.
You would hope for more support from your employer and it is a policy that will do little to boost the recruitment of officials at all levels of the game.
Some believe the blame lies with ref Garces as ‘the sole judge of fact and of law during a match’ and suggested he should have queried the TMO’s decision.
But that ignores the fact that it was by no means clear cut and that he may have agreed with the view that there was no ‘grounding’ of the ball having seen it for himself on the big screen.
Perhaps the issue is with the wording of the Law rather than the performance of the officials in question?
The recently simplified Law 21.1b states that:
“The ball can be grounded in in-goal:"
a) By holding it and touching the ground with it; or
b) By pressing down on it with a hand or hands, arm or arms, or the front of the player’s body from waist to neck.
You can judge for yourself as to whether Anscombe’s actions meet this definition. It is certainly up for debate.
Interestingly, there is no mention of ‘control’ and perhaps such a requirement would remove doubt in such a scenario as this when it is just fingers flailing for just the merest of contact on the ball.
The great thing is that the Six Nations is only just warming up and we have three rounds of matches to elevate this year’s Championship beyond this mishap.