Mind Games: Stuberries galore, but no cream

2014-03-30 14:00

A new word could soon slip into the lexicon of rugby – coined especially for referee Stuart Berry.

The garrulous Berry, who seems able to keep up a running commentary on the game even as he whistles, has come in for strident criticism for his allegedly biased refereeing.

This resulted in the Lions overturning a large deficit to beat the Reds 23-20 at Ellis Park last week.

Berry was also in charge when the Lions, at his behest and aided and abetted by the same TV match official (TMO), were awarded a dubious try that enabled them to beat the Blues the week prior.

The Sanzar referees’ controlling body has not moved against Berry by removing him from the panel – he ran one of the lines for Craig Joubert at Loftus yesterday – but it seems the unfortunate Durbanite has taken over from Bryce Lawrence as the most reviled match official in world rugby.

This might result in the South African replacing the Kiwi when it comes to describing a poor refereeing performance: instead of “doing a Bryce” it will now be known as “doing a Stuberry”.

Andre Watson, the SA Rugby Union’s head of referees, has moved to defend his officials, as one would expect, by shifting the blame to coaches and players who try to circumvent the laws. But the sad fact is this: referees are on a hiding to nothing.

The scrum, that emblematic part of the game, is a mess. Changes to the law have had the opposite effect to those intended and a number of great figures in the game have called for their revision.

But they’ve gone unheeded thus far.

It was hoped that by removing one count in the binding sequence – from “crouch, touch, pause, engage” to “crouch, bind, set” – the scrums would settle. But officials also included an instruction that the referee should give the scrum half a signal to put the ball in.

All good in theory, but in the side putting the ball in, which is ostensibly entitled to advantage, is in fact at a disadvantage.

This because while the attacking team’s hooker is unbalanced to rake the ball back, the defenders are on full power and waiting for the signal to shove.

The use of the TMO to arrive at correct decisions has resulted in too many instances of a dereliction of the referee’s duty.

Too often, referrals result in erroneous outcomes.

Referees are so nervous about making errors, they refer incidents they had a perfectly clear view of – often the best view – and the sequence can look quite different in slow motion with the parallax effect of the camera lens.

The offside laws are either ignored or haphazardly applied, as was the case when Berry punished the Reds for habitual transgressions that he had waived earlier in the game. The protocol at breakdowns seems not to be understood by coaches, players or fans.

Recently, the International Rugby Board introduced an element almost impossible to rule on consistently, by expecting referees to judge whether, in a pass, the ball left the player’s hands backward or forward because of what was termed “relative velocity” – the phenomenon in terms of which a player’s motion causes the ball to travel forward as it leaves his hands.

So instead of the onus being on the player to make sure he passes the ball backward, as has been the case for more than a century, a referee has to make a subjective calibration – out of breath, on the run, perhaps unsighted and one clearly impossible to get right every time.

There is just too much doubt, too many “interpretations” rather than “applications” of the law, and it is harming the game.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: apply the law as it is written in the book, or rewrite the book to provide the wretched referees with the most valid response of all: “Don’t blame me, I blew the law!”

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