In the wake of Canadian Jebb Sinclair’s controversial red card, we ask whether today’s referees possess true empathy for the game.
“If that’s a penalty, then rugby’s gone soft.” “But of course you have to penalise an elbow to the face!” “We may as well play touch rugby from now on.” “It was a deliberate leading elbow – nailed-on red card.” “Decisions like these set a dangerous precedent.”
And so on and so forth rumbled the debate over Sinclair’s potentially game-deciding red card for “leading with his elbow” into the head of Ruaridh Jackson as Scotland limped past Canada on Saturday.
It was the latest in what feels like a never-ending string of contentious calls, decided after referral to the TMO, as the visitors snuck home 17-19 in Toronto.
The arguments for and against referee Mike Fraser’s choice to send Sinclair packing will rage on for a while yet; the irony being that those quarrelling one way or the other miss the bigger picture entirely. You can argue whether it was red or not until Singapore are World Champions and the TMO has been replaced by an army of Brian Moore clones. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the collision warranted a sending off – it is perhaps telling that the player will face no further punishment where in most cases a ban would be issued – but I frankly don’t blame Fraser for flashing scarlet.
The reason is simple. The IRB issues so many ever-changing directives and legislation, and demands such stringent terminology be used by their officials that today’s referees are at risk of becoming robots: rigid and bereft of initiative and independent thought. This is especially “clear and obvious” in those referees – like Fraser – who are still cutting their teeth at Test level, have learned their trade in the age of technology, and can understandably get so caught up within the tight parameters of misguided pedantry that mistakes are made, and players, coaches and supporters grow frustrated. It is no coincidence that controversies over TMO calls and overuse are rife.
We do, at times, demand too much from the men in the middle. We cry for consistency, yet grumble when a uniform approach is applied in a manner we disagree with.
I’ve rated Fraser when I’ve watched him take charge of Super Rugby matches, and I would despair were he subject to the same churlish abuse as Wayne Barnes, Bryce Lawrence and Romain Poite have been before. Indeed, unless we’re talking about policing the dreaded scrummage, I don’t subscribe to the oft-trotted out adage that to be a great referee, one must first become a great player. Alain Rolland won three Ireland caps but proved to be one of the game’s most divisive whistleblowers, while Nigel Owens has scarcely played beyond schoolboy level.
But it is a sense of empathy and an acute feel for the game that sets the likes of the Welshman apart. It’s why he has gained such admiration across global rugby, and is generally regarded as the world’s best. Kiwi Chris Pollock is another on top of his game, and while the flamboyance of Steve Walsh can aggravate some, he too is at very summit.
This understanding is honed over the course of a referee’s career. It is the main reason unions have become desperate to enlist recently-retired professional players to take up the whistle, and fast-track them through domestic ranks. It is exactly this that fledgling Fraser failed to grasp in Toronto, and he is by no means a bad referee because of it. A sizeable minority agreed with his course of action, and in a perverse way, seeing an official unafraid to dish out the ultimate punishment at such a crucial stage of the game was refreshing.
But Fraser’s call, made harder by the typically damning slow-motion replays was symptomatic of the way modern elite referees do their job. So tightly governed and wooden have they become by this tunnel-vision approach that they lose sight of the players’ perspective; they do not understand why the likes of Sinclair take the actions they do on the pitch.
The Canadians won’t forget this call for a while; it’s not every day in Toronto the chance to scalp a Tier One side presents itself, even one as awful as Scotland were on Saturday. The online torrent of opinion too shows no signs of abating.
But this is where the real thrust of the debate should lie; the concern for a new era of robotic referees who do not truly understand the players they preside over.
By Jamie Lyall - Planet Rugby