By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius, Sports Law Centre, University of Pretoria, South Africa
The recent Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship tournament has produced some truly memorable occasions.
Most notable was the first ever victory by Argentina over New Zealand on the home turf of New Zealand. This victory is the stuff of legends and will undoubtedly be celebrated in Argentina for decades to come. It is certainly also a good omen for any sport if the outcome of the tournament was in the balance right up to the final few minutes of the final match. Despite the fact that New Zealand eventually won the tournament for the 19th time in 27 seasons, there are indications that the balance of power in rugby union may be shifting. Some glaring shortcomings have become evident in the All Blacks' game, but the eventual success of New Zealand in securing the title yet again, will most likely serve to gloss it over. With a Word Cup looming in 2023, this is bound to come back and haunt the All Blacks.
In a previous Post, I alluded to the fact that the exit of South African franchise teams from the SuperRugby tournament in favour of the United Rugby Championship with teams from Europe, will be to the detriment of both New Zealand and Australia and eventually benefit South Africa and countries in the Northern Hemisphere, such as Ireland. The signs of this were already evident in 2022, with New Zealand not only conceding a home defeat to Argentina, but also famously conceding a home series defeat to Ireland.
However, the award for the real standout performance of the 2022 Rugby Championship must surely go to the referees.
The standard of refereeing appeared to be questionable, at the very least. There were some truly dubious decisions, such as the reversal of a penalty awarded to Australia in the last minute of their match with New Zealand, ostensibly because the Australian players were wasting time. This allowed the All Blacks to score the winning points.
And there was the yellow card handed to Springbok Eben Etsebeth in the match against Argentina, for ostensibly shoving an Argentinian player into Emiliano Boffeli, who had jumped to claim a high ball. Boffeli took a heavy fall, but the replays, which referee Damon Murphy also watched on the big screen, undoubtedly showed that neither Etsebeth, nor the player he shoved, made any contact with Boffeli. It was clear to everybody, except Murphy, that Boffeli had crashed into one of his own teammates and that caused him to fall.
There was also the yellow card handed to Springbok Makazole Mapimpi for shoving Australian Marika Koroibete, after the former had scored a try. This resulted in a mass brawl between the two teams. Strangely, the stiff arm, high and dangerous tackle by Koroibete was overlooked by referee Ben O'Keeffe, who was watching the replay on the big screen. Perhaps this was poetic justice as O'Keeffe also missed a dangerous tackle by Springbok Lood de Jager earlier in the match, which could have seen the lock forward red carded.
The most telling tale of refereeing woes during the Rugby Championship, however, lies in the fact that, in twelve matches, one red card and 29 yellow cards were handed out to players. That is a staggering average of 2.5 cards per match and represents 25 minutes of game time per match where a team was a player short.
To put it differently, almost one third of the Rugby Championship was played with less than thirty players on the pitch. The final match of the tournament, between South Africa and Argentina, saw no less than six yellow cards handed out by referee Damon Murphy.
The previous week, referee James Doleman handed out four yellow cards in the match between the same two teams, whilst referee Matthieu Raynal awarded four yellow cards in the match between New Zealand and Australia. The hard-handed approach of the referees towards the latter stages of the tournament was extremely frustrating for spectators, who wish to see an even contest, and undoubtedly had a direct impact on the outcome of the 2022 Rugby Championship.
In previous Posts "Is Rugby sitting on a concussion time bomb?" and "Has time run out for rugby?", I highlighted the fact that World Rugby continues to change rules and speed up the game, in an attempt to make the game more attractive to spectators. The plethora of questionable decisions, the stop-start nature of matches in the Rugby Championship and the flood of cards fly in the face of these attempts and should be a concern to World Rugby. The question should then surely be asked: "Why has the standard of refereeing been so low during the Rugby Championship?"
However, I do not believe that the referees are necessarily the only ones to blame for this situation.
Yes, there were some dubious calls, but referees are only human and, as such, they are bound to make mistakes here and there. In my previous Post "Is Rugby sitting on a concussion time bomb?", I highlighted how the rules changes have changed the pace of the game and how the ball was in play 37% more because of them. The number of tackles made and rucks formed more than tripled. And whilst teams are allowed to substitute up to half of the players on the pitch, the referee has to remain sharp and vigilant for the entire duration of the game. The state of refereeing in the Rugby Championship is the result of overzealous rugby authorities, who are hell-bent on making the game faster and increasing game time, without taking into account the superhuman demands which this may place on match officials. The game has simply become too fast paced and complicated to facilitate proper refereeing.
By changing the rules as they do and by seeking to make the game faster, World Rugby is not making the game more attractive. Rather, it is slowly killing the game. As indicated in my previous Posts "Is Rugby sitting on a concussion time bomb?" and "Has time run out for rugby?", I highlighted how the change in rules is clearly leading to greater injury rates and long-term health concerns amongst players and former players. Now it is further apparent that the rules changes are also impacting on the officiating of matches, to the utter the frustration of fans.
Perhaps World Rugby should take heed of the law of unintended consequences: Any purposeful action will have results that are not part of the actor's purpose and often cause more harm than the concerns which they are designed to remedy.
Or perhaps there are more sinister forces at play and the officiating is the result of careful planning so that fans debate the strange calls and dubious yellow cards for weeks on end.
As they sometimes say in marketing, there is no such thing as bad publicity!