The thick of it

Time to lay the law down properly, says Stuart Barnes

Last Updated: 05/03/13 3:40pm

May: controversial try against Worcester

It seems that every game on television has more and more controversy. The match officials have been getting as many headlines as players in recent weeks with a rash of contentious decisions.

"The game is in need of a radical and professional rereading and rethinking. "

Stuart Barnes

Quotes of the week

David Rose was harangued by Brian Smith of London Irish for a plethora of penalties conceded at Bath, including a penalty try for a high tackle by Topsy Ojo as Tom Biggs dived for the line (great decision) and less than a week later the same referee made the headlines as Trevor Fisher, the television match official guided him towards giving Gloucester a penalty try that garnered extra headlines because it occurred so late in the game and was perceived to cost Worcester a valuable win.

Bath v Gloucester had another penalty try and a red card for a tip tackle for good measure while another penalty try went the way of Saracens as I digested a fine chicken and cider pie on Sunday afternoon.

Forgive me if I return to a theme of last Thursday's Rugby Club but I think the issue of officiating is both important and - at times - bordering on insane. Referees are in the thick of it and inevitably receive much of the flak and frankly, as long as the tone is polite and the questioning non-abusive, so they should. The pressures and the palpitations brought on players and coaches from match changing mistakes are massive and referees should not be above open debate.

However, I think the finger pointed at the man in the middle is a mistake. The rule book appears to play as significant a role in controversy as the whistle blower and his aides. Then there is 'the pressure from above' as many referees refer to the demands from the game's administrators. Finally there are the managers and players themselves who might be the victims of poor decisions but must consider the part they play in some of these errors. In particular I am thinking about the scrum.

Let's start with the rule book and the penalty try. The overriding problem is grammatical. Referees, according to the book, are entitled to give a penalty try when foul play prevented a 'probable' score. That is a subjective take on whether a try is likely to have been scored. There is no degree of doubt required. If a referee and his TMO think a try was 51% as opposed to 49% likely to have been scored the book demands the referee gives the try.

That is quite clearly preposterously wrong. A seven point concession is an immense call for an official and his team and a marginal, subjective opinion that the score would have occurred grants too much power and responsibility on the officials. Change the wording to 'almost certain' (there is no such thing as certain) or high probability and the border line calls will be eradicated with a quick change of a word. Would that Jonny May have almost certainly been scored? No way is the answer affirmative but there would have been a card and a penalty and a chance to win the game for Gloucester and an end to the headlines heading to the wrong men.

The rule book is also guilty when it comes to the scrums. Many fans and ex-players are developing blood pressure watching the blatant feeding at the vast majority of scrums. Read the rule book and it's there, the law against feeding remains as bold as ever but it is utterly ignored. One of the reasons is because of the administrator's weakness and coaching demands.

Coaches met before the 2011 World Cup and told the referees and their bosses that feeding was fine because the scrum is now about the hit, the engagement. Effectively the coaches told the lawmakers what was and what was not fine with the scrum and referees therefore ignored the rule book.


I have a theory that when the rule book is partly followed and partly ignored the game itself will inevitably undergo a structural change as it evolves in its hybrid direction. The sport either has to take the demand for the straight feed out of the book or start penalising teams for persistent infringements at the put in.

Feeding changes the whole shape of the scrum as the technical role of the hooker lessens because of the rarer need to strike a ball. With the focus on the engagement it is becoming a world where three powerhouse pushers are in demand. We are caught between the old and new and unsurprisingly most nearly everyone is confused.

Now the managers, coaches and scrums; I call the refereeing of scrums 'heads and tails reffing'. You get the point. There is a lot of guesswork and it is deeply unsatisfying. But the set piece is not being made easier by scrum coaches who work on strategies to con officials. It has been happening forever, in the professional age it simply happens more often. If teams stayed straight and tried to scrum legitimately at every engagement there would be fewer collapses, fewer penalties and fewer complaints. Our coaches have THE fundamental role in sorting out the set piece mess. They together with some belated modern thinking as far the rules go would make a tremendous difference.

Finally the penalty tries for the tip tackle. Ask a referee why policy is so often of the zero variety and he will tell you that the word has come from on high, it is traced all the way to the men who run the sport. It was the explanation Alain Rolland used when Sam Warburton was sent off in the World Cup semi, it was the reason most tip tackles, when they go as far as slow motion replays end up red. Not always because a referee deems it right but because he is under pressure to blow that way.

When a referee says, as they do, 'I have no option I am refereeing according to the laws' remember that is nonsense; at the scrum he ignores the letter of the law every put in because the authorities have forgotten there is a rule regarding crooked feeds. The game is in need of a radical and professional rereading and rethinking.

On the field

Well done Exeter for reminding us the game is fabulous because of its unpredictability. I didn't think the Chiefs had a chance but they were deserving winners and, in the end, runaway winners against Harlequins. Will thought it would be closer than Dewi and I did but none of us saw this coming as we didn't see England beating New Zealand.

Well done London Welsh; overpowered in the end by Saracens but a display of spirit considering the demoralising events that have occurred off the field.

Well done Jamie Elliott. Five tries in two games. You are the harbinger of spring as surely as the snowdrops popping up in the fields....

Future thoughts

Let's hope (if you are English) the team is selected with Wales, the World Cup and Italy in that order. It would be an illustration of Stuart Lancaster's ability to think ahead and over the horizon.

Wales and Scotland to deliver a game at the sort of tempo that will make it worth Warren Gatland's while to watch with a view to selecting a team to face the Wallabies.

Ireland and France to perform.

John Kirwan keeps reminding us that he was an interesting contender for the England job; he has the Auckland Blues brightening up our early mornings.

Stuart answers your emails...

Got a question for Stuart? Email him at or use the feedback form below...

Hi Stuart

What do you think Saturday's result at the Stoop says about Exeter's Heineken Cup ambitions and Harlequins' title hopes? In my opinion Saracens will edge the Premiership and Chiefs will just miss out on the Heineken Cup.

STUART REPLIES: Sean, the Premiership boils down to a final and while Saracens are in good nick it would not pay to write off Harlequins after one poor performance. And don't forget Leicester; everyone seems to be dismissing their domestic and European hopes. This is premature. We also need to remember that the top teams are all way below full strength. The semis and final will be another matter and what is happening now only has implications as one of the top three will have to win away.

Exeter did just that at the Stoop and kept their European hopes alive. Rob Baxter said they needed a win to be in contention; they got it. I still think they will fall just short this time but no more writing the Chiefs of unless they visit Clermont anytime soon.

Stuart, What are your thoughts on Ronan O'Gara's omission from Ireland's squad to face France? He's 36 next week - could we have seen him make his final Six Nations appearance?

STUART REPLIES: Ben, yes is the short answer. I love ROG for his refusal to take the easy way out and announce his retirement when he knows time is up; he backs himself. He never thinks the end is coming but his cameo horror show is probably an unfortunate end to a fine international career.

Hello Stuart. Big fan of the column. David Strettle impressed against London Welsh after being released for the game by England. Do you think he'll ever be able to pin down a regular starting spot under Stuart Lancaster?
Matt (Saracens fan)

STUART REPLIES: Matt, no. Like Ugo Monye I think Dave is playing superbly for his club but has fallen short a few times too often at international level. Club form and international selection do not always go hand in hand.

Stuart, it's been 12 months since Chris Robshaw was made England skipper. How do you rate his first year in the job?
Steve (Quins fan)

STUART REPLIES: A superb first Six Nations. A learning tour of South Africa and a few horrible moments in the autumn. The calls to axe him were ridiculously premature as he has again shown to date in this Six Nations. I called for him to be made England captain even before Stuart Lancaster was in charge and I am not going to change my mind considering the leadership he is providing. I sense an outstanding England captain in the making.