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View from the Orphanage No 2, Jan 2012

A View from the Orphanage, No. 2, Jan 2012

As predicted in the previous column, there are no changes in law for January 2012. So perhaps, almost a direct comparison for Lancaster’s ‘young bloods’ against Johnson’s ‘old lags’, when Lancaster’s lot take on Scotland at Murrayfield to kick off the Six Nations. The last meeting, in the RWC, saw England squeak home to knock out the ‘auld enemy’. Same laws, different venue, different team selections. We all await the outcome with great interest and pray that match officials will have no adverse effect on the game.
In the last column, the term ‘contextual judgement’ was referred to. This is partly what makes refereeing such a challenge. The Law book states, for example, “A player must not tackle (or try to tackle) an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders.” (Dangerous Play or Misconduct Law 10.4 (e)). Sanction: Penalty Kick. But when does that warrant a red card? In scenario 1, in an innocuous game, with no foul play, a fly half side-steps a slow prop who faintly brushes the face of the No. 10 with his outstretched hand, causing no damage to the 10 who plays on, unimpeded, on his feet. The only injury is to the prop’s ego. In scenario 2, in a game where both sides have already committed fouls, constant ‘sledging’ takes place and captains had been warned, when the No.12 tackles his opposite number way after that opponent had passed the ball. The high tackle is across the jaw with great force, using a fully cocked swinging arm, laying and knocking the centre out, blood streaming from his nose.
In both scenarios, the same law has been broken, do they warrant the same sanction? The possibilities are, ignore it (we hope not, in either case!), warn the player (in scenario 1, just a quick word), yellow or lastly, red, card. Which does each scenario warrant? We won’t take a straw poll in the club one Saturday afternoon, but it’s likely that most of us would consider a red card in scenario 1 an aberration of justice, invoked by a mad referee, full of his own self-importance and out of touch. Quite a few would expect, probably correctly, a red card in scenario 2. Consider the lengthy debate over Sam Warburton’s red card against France in the RWC semi-final. Alain Rolland (Irish, not as some might suppose, French) instantly dished out a red card, following ‘irb’ instructions for the tournament. This certainly caused controversy.
So, in these situations, referees must be seen to dispense justice, but tempered by common sense, or what we call ‘Contextual judgement’. In each of our cases, the referee has to make a judgement, taking a number of factors into account to make a ‘just’ decision (‘contextual judgement’).
But the exercise of Contextual judgement can lead to what some see as ‘inconsistency’ (ask Steve Diamond about the penalty against Sale at Harlequins by Wayne Barnes in the last minute to deny Sale a win or draw- but not sure he was right!). However, what’s the alternative? No discretion for the referee? I think the proof of this daft approach can be seen in some football refereeing decisions, where some decisions are ‘formulaic’, if ‘x’ happens, you will do ‘y’, no matter what kind of ‘x’ it was.
In rugby, this need to understand the game and what teams and players are trying to achieve, be all-seeing (well we all fail that one!!), be physically and mentally fit (the latter will fail if the former isn’t there when walking/running/jogging/sprinting an average of five miles per game), making literally thousands of decisions in each game, get yourself in the right position to see each phase of play and enjoy yourself whilst doing all this is what makes refereeing the challenge it is. Or at least, that’s what the research tells us. This decision-making, including contextual judgement, is one of the great challenges for anyone who referees a rugby match, at any level.
So, if you enjoy a challenge, perhaps you should give it a go?
Ah, well, I can dream! But the game always needs more referees….
Geoff Cove


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