The people in charge of rugby are constantly looking for ways to make the game more beautiful. I am probably not a good guy to ask about beauty contests but I certainly have views on how we could move the sport forwards.
Unless we can clear up some of the gray areas, rugby could be heading towards trouble. It’s impossible to expect a referee to make between 800 and 850 decisions in one match. The game isn’t allowed to flow any more and you’re always going to end up with one team that is p***ed off. Rather than add on layers of new laws, there are ways to simplify things.
Do we want rugby to remain a game for all shapes and sizes? If you squeeze scrums and mauls out of the game for pure running rugby — like replacing a five-meter scrum with a goal-line drop-out — then it will not remain a game for all shapes and sizes. I respect the fact that everyone sees the game differently and we need to cater for everyone’s tastes. In my eyes, seeing the fatties dominate a scrum is just as beautiful as watching Cheslin Kolbe or Finn Russell.
Joe Marler should be considered as an expert scrum referee – no one would question him
If you want to simplify the game, firstly you need to give everyone an equal start. That sounds really obvious but there is always one part of the world that gets a head start. You often see law trials introduced in one country before another because they do not play simultaneously. It should be a seamless and fair process.
If we had a global season, everyone could start adapting on one specified date and nobody is playing catch up. It’s important because law changes can possibly have an influence on players’ contract renewals and salaries. Suddenly a great kicker or a great tighthead prop might see their value crash because their skills become less important as a result of law changes or interpretations.
Petrus Du Plessis, most recently of Glasgow Warriors, could be a specialist scrum referee
It’s not easy to just make a law change because there are so many knock-on effects. We’ve got to be open-minded. Rugby likes habit but if it stays too stuck in its ways the game will never move forward. There are a number of ways we can simplify things without changing things so much that it confuses players, coaches, club owners, referees and fans.
Sometimes the easy solutions are staring us in the face and these are a few ideas that could help the game kick on:
SORT OUT THE SCRUM
For international rugby, why not form a group of world-class scrummaging experts — former players or coaches — to serve as specialist scrummaging referees?
These guys could roam along the touchline, as close as possible to the action and the moment a scrum is called they sprint on to officiate it. Get them in the gym so they are on and off the pitch quickly. It would be their only job, so they would have no impact on the rest of the game.
There are about 20 scrums a match so you could even put a microphone on them and link them up to the TV commentary team so the viewers understand what’s going on. According to the law book, a team must be ready to form a scrum within 30 seconds of the referee’s mark. A scrum referee could police this. If you go back to the Nineties, a scrum would be formed 20 seconds from the knock on. It was so much quicker. Why are they becoming a nightmare?
Scrums are becoming a nightmare and are taking much longer than they previously did
Graham Rowntree is another potential option to consider as a specialized scrum referee
Well, scrums didn’t collapse 25 years ago because there were physical consequences. I was a flanker and my prop would say, “If we are ever going backwards, just keep me up.” If you dared collapse the scrum the other team would just ruck over you and there would be blood. You were s**t scared of collapsing a scrum. That doesn’t happen now because players know they are protected by player welfare and citing commissioners, which I fully support.
Instead, you see more scrums collapsing due to tactical reasons and teams get away with it. The only other solution is to have an expert there who knows the scrum mechanics inside out and can make quick decisions with authority.
If teams are trying to slow it down then stop the clock. We have tried tweaking many different things but the scrum remains a problem. There are already 58 things you can be punished for at a scrum and we don’t need to make things more complicated. So bring in guys who can communicate with the coaches during the week. Nobody would question decisions made by guys like Graham Rowntree or Petrus du Plessis or Joe Marler as expert scrum referees, if they officiate the scrums as stated precisely in the law book and better yet no one in the game will have to adapt.
BRING IN A SHOT CLOCK
You get 60 seconds to kick a penalty and 90 seconds to kick a conversion. People want to see more ball in play, so why not police those time limits? We are regularly involved in matches where the kicker goes 20 seconds over the allowance. If there are six kicks at goal in a match, that could waste two minutes of ball-in-play time. Put a countdown clock on the big screens and if the time runs out then they lose the kick.
A shot clock needs to be introduced to ensure that the ball is in play as much as possible
If we want to see more ball-in-play time then we need to make sure there is less ball-out-of-play time. If a team goes into a huddle before a lineout, stop the clock. If a guy goes down to tie his shoelaces or take a drink before a scrum, stop the clock. We could easily increase the ball-in-play time by between seven and 10 minutes by enforcing the laws as they are written and again no one will have to adapt to any law changes.
The idea of two referees sounds radical and it has been tried, but it can work if done correctly. If it’s efficient and non-intrusive, it could make a massive difference around the tackle/breakdown area.
The breakdown is so complicated for players, coaches, referees and fans alike. As a referee, you need five pairs of eyes to see what is going on at a breakdown — otherwise you are guessing.
Having two referees is non-intrusive and could make a big difference around the tackle area
It is not unusual to have close to 200 tackle situations in a game. Each time, the referee has to think: did the tackler release the tackled player? Did the tackler get to his feet from him before the contest? Did the tackled player place the ball immediately? Did the arriving players come through the gate? Did the arriving player support their own bodyweight? It’s impossible!
You can’t expect one referee to get everything right while also having peripheral vision across the pitch to see who is offside.
We should have two referees on the pitch. One who focuses on the breakdown area and another who looks at everything else outside of that. If we can get the scrum and breakdown right then you will see awesome backline play as a result.