Monday's discussion was on the penalty the referee awarded against the Sharks for dangerous play while the ball was still in the scrumhalf's hands and there was no physical contact between the players. The referee described it as 'dangerous play'. It may well be worthwhile to look at some aspects of the decision again.
It was, we may mention, a decision that had no immediate of long-term effect on the game - Crusaders vs Sharks - certainly not as much of an effect as a pass that led to an intercept and a try.
Just to refresh memories this is what happened: The Sharks prepare to put the ball into a scrum and Charl McLeod, their scrumhalf is to put the ball in. The referee tells the players to crouch, which they do. The referee tells the players to touch. They touch and withdraw their hands. Then the referee blows his whistle, steps in between the front rows and says: "Penalty. You've moved. Dangerous play. There's the mark. You're on that side."
It seemed weird to have dangerous play when there was no play at all.
South Africa's refereeing boss, André Watson, described the decision as a 'brain explosion, and said that it could not be denied that Lawrence had made a mistake. But the mistake, it seemed to him, was in poor communication.
Lyndon Bray, SANZAR's man in charge of referees, described it as 'poor description', i.e. poor communication. The referee himself acknowledged that it 'needed to be explained/communicated better'.
All three agree that the problem was poor communication. Which brings us to the substance of the decision - the reason for the penalty.
In December 2010, i.e. before the Super 15, there was a meeting of coaches and referees in Sydney. There all agreed that the new manoeuvre of front-row players goimg head-to-head on engagement was dangerous. It is obviously dangerous when all that beef throws heads forward into each other. There is the danger of the clash, the danger of deflection and the danger of angled scrumming as possibilities. The Sydney meeting decided that this should be treated as dangerous play, which meant that it could be penalised, rather than as a technical infringement which would have evoked a free kick. The penalty was seen as the correct way to go to avoid further trouble.
And so the referees did was they were told and the problem soon disappeared. Now in the 19th week of Super 15 it recrudesced.
In this year's Six Nations, Scotland were penalised for something similar. It was on Italy's ball and when Steve Walsh, a SANZAR referee, penalised Scotland the hookers' heads were actually touching at the Pause instruction.
So the preventative penalty in this case could be understandable, and the problem may well have been one of communication. When Steve Walsh penalised Scotland, he said: "Head-to-head. Dangerous." There it was obvious as there was contact. In Saturday's case Bryce Lawrence says simply: "Dangerous play." And at that stage heads were not touching.
The communication problem was not entirely of the referee's making. There had been five scrums before the penalty. The Crusaders had put the ball into the first four, the Sharks into the fifth., The referee spoke to the front rows on four of those five occasions. On two of the four occasions he spoke precisely about the danger of going head to head. But what he said on those four occasions is not audible as the commentators carry on talking above him. But the penalty explanation is clearly audible and it just did not make sense.
In hindsight it would have been better if Lawrence had managed the situation, i.e. got the Sharks in this sixth scrum into the right position with a warning against non-compliance.
'Clear and obvious' is the vogue refereeing watchword for penalising. It is a good watchword. In this case it is not clear and obvious who moved, how the movement affected the scrum and where any possible danger was. That added to the mystery of the award of the penalty.
Communication was clearly bad, but it is not all.
Why was a meeting in Sydney making laws?
This head-to-head business is not explicit in the laws, good commonsense though it is. The international Rugby Board makes laws from time to time, and between one time and the next, it has a committee of designated members who give law clarifications which have the effect of laws. These rulings are published and are there for all to see.
One would have thought that the Sydney meeting could have referred the matter to the IRB and had the ruling made known to all, rather than something esoteric. Rulings by bodies other than the IRB, which is the game's lawmaking body, are always dangerous and should not exist. It's a different matter when laws are resurrected which have fallen into abeyance. This is a matter of the creation of new laws.
There is one more take on this. People have questioned whether Lawrence should still referee the Final.
Watson has no doubts about that. "Bryce is highly-rated by coaches in the Super Rugby tournament. This year we used their input with that of our own selectors to determine who the referees would be in the playoffs. He had a good year and we should not let one and a half poor decisions detract from that."
Recently Glen Jackson, a top player who has become a top referee, spoke about the difference between refereeing and playing. He said: "Players can make a mistake and people are quiet about it and then if they do something brilliant, they are applauded. If a referee makes a mistake he is no good and no number of fantastic calls can make up for it."
Players, of course, have lots of supporters, referees exceeding few. And so Lawrence is more vilified for one decision perceived to be wrong than Lambie was for a mistake that was certainly wrong.
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