Paul Dobson takes a look at what can be expected from referees when the Super Rugby season gets underway on Friday.
Being fond of Herschelle Gibbs - as I still am - from the days when he was a brilliant flyhalf in a school team I coached, I watched every ball he faced in that knock and, allowing time for him to get over his celebrations, phoned him from Cape Town to congratulate him. His response was pure Herschelle - the past was in the past and the present had hold of his attention. He said to me: "Thanks, Paul. I'm watching Super 12. These refs are up to shit, hey."
Then, as now, there had been a meeting of Super referees in Sydney and, yet again, the tackle had been the hot topic. It should be. Where once upon a time the line-out was the source of most penalties, now it is the tackle that is the 'illegitimate child' of rugby, the source of most penalties. So the meeting in 1999 instructed referees to be tough at the tackle, leading to lots of criticism, most vociferously from coaches and commentators of various kinds. "Referee are killing the game", they shrieked.
That there is concern about the tackle is right and proper. It is so close to the soul of the game, the inner distinctive beauty of the game - its continuity, which distinguishes it from league and gridiron, that which above all makes rugby exciting.
This year there is again emphasis on the tackle - not in any change in the laws but in an attempt to have a fair contest at the tackle - a fair contest between tackled and tackler. There is a sense - less so now in the mechanical days of the one-off runner on his way to ground before he reaches a tackler - in which the tackler has won a contest when he tackles the ball-carrier. The ball-carrier sets out to beat the tackler but when the tackler has tackled him, the tackler has won. As the winner he deserves and equal chance to win the ball to his side.
To win the ball, both sides have to play within law. Both sides - ball-carrier's side and tackler's side. To ensure possession for their side to the exclusion of the tackler's side, the ball-carrier's side has sometimes resorted to lying over the ball, 'sealing off'. This is against the law which requires players to be in their feet or away from the ball. This is where the referees have been asked to be strict.
The warm-up matches in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were used to focus on this and all the 15 teams have been told about it. Super Rugby referees have been allotted to each team to help them along - and some teams are going to have to learn quickly. When the Stormers played the Lions in a warm-up match they conceded 18 penalties - 12 at the tackle plus three yellow cards for tackle infringements, as against four tackle infringements by the Lions.
One form of sealing off is when a ball-carrier goes to ground with one or two team-mates hanging onto him and going with him. They are referred to as 'hammers' or 'snakes' and they will be required to get to their feet immediately ('reloading') roll right away.
Things seem better organised in 2012 than they were in 1999 and there should be less to trouble teams and watchers - said in hope.
There are downsides. Firstly, there is the problem of prejudging in that certain teams and individual players become targets. Secondly, it may just be that teams will be chary of playing in their own half where they are liable to penalties and points, and so resort to kicking. Thirdly, focus on some aspects of the law could just possibly occasionally lead to overlooking other infringements - the scrum-feed syndrome.
There is one more caveat in Herschelle's reaction - do not believe that commentators are necessarily right when they talk laws. The referees will not be, in Herschelle's words, 'up to shit'.
By Paul Dobson
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