“When we have things that have multiple interpretations, we will have human error.”
Those were the words of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen following his side’s epic 15-15 draw against the British and Irish Lions in Auckland on Saturday.
Following the match, Hansen said that the scrum-instead-of-penalty incident showed that rugby’s laws were just too complicated.
With the score tied at 15-all and less than two minutes to go at Eden Park in the series-deciding Test, referee Romain Poite initially awarded the All Blacks a penalty when Lions fullback Liam Williams knocked the ball on from a kick-off and replacement hooker Ken Owens caught the ball (in front of Williams) and dropped it like the oval ball’s leather was on fire.
After initially deeming it a penalty-kick offence, Poite consulted with television match official George Ayoub and asked: “Are you okay with the knock-on, challenge in the air (by Kieran Read) fair and penalty kick against 16 Red in front?”
And then, after taking a slow walk back to the two captains, Poite suddenly made a U-turn on his decision. He ruled that Owens was “accidentally offside” and awarded a scrum to the All Blacks instead of a penalty that would have given Beauden Barrett a reasonable shot at booting his team to both a match win and series celebrations.
Hansen made another comment regarding the occurrence: “If you look at Romain’s instincts it was a penalty. But he got caught up in overthinking it and he made a mistake.”
It’s common knowledge that a player who is offside isn’t liable to be penalised if he doesn’t interfere with play. So, only if that player interferes with play, or moves forward towards the ball or the player who is carrying it, or if he is offside under the 10-metre law, then only can he be penalised.
Owens, however, was not only offside but he also caught the ball that was knocked forward by Williams (which completely invalidates any accidental offside arguments). Yes, maybe he could not have avoided being touched by the ball or by Williams, but he caught it. And that is an intentional act.
Now you can argue that it was instinctive or just a reflex, but if we make the room for “instinctive or intentional offences” bigger, what circus would rugby be?
Also, why did Poite not play advantage? After all, Anton Lienert-Brown had a golden opportunity to capitalise on the Lions’ fumble. And it should make one wonder - is rugby too complicated?
Should the laws be made so black and white (without all the little sub-divisions) that there is no room left for any lines to be blurred?
The breakdown is another example of the oversized room individual interpretation enjoys. When it comes to this contest on the ground, the interpretation thereof differs more than the distance between the north and south poles.
Playing the man in the air and the jungle that is the scrum are two other areas which constantly attract heated debate.
I acknowledge that the men who interpret these incidents, referees, are only human. But unfortunately for the men in the middle, there is one unforgivable sin when it comes to the game of rugby union, and that is getting a law wrong.
It’s unforgivable for various reasons. One, for referees, there is no excuse for not knowing the laws of the game. They are available to every ref (or to anyone, for that matter) and they are available in various forms.
In the heat of the battle, I guess it’s understandable (though not acceptable) that a referee might get one (hopefully minor) call wrong. Unlike the rest of us who are able to replay an incident on television, the referee doesn’t have that luxury.
They need to make big calls in a short period of time, but it shouldn’t happen, it just shouldn’t. And World Rugby needs to do whatever they can to simplify the process for all involved, from referees to coaches to players.
So again, I ask - are the laws of rugby too complicated? I think not. But I do think the laws of the game are too open to interpretation.