Refereeing consistency is the problem in rugby, not the ruck

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PREMIUM

FOR two weeks in a row, the outcome of a Six Nations match has been decided by a red card.

I have no doubt that if Peter O’Mahony had not been sent off, Ireland would have beaten Wales. I have even less doubt that if Zander Fagerson had stayed on the pitch, Scotland would have beaten Wales and probably comfortably so.

Lose a man in international rugby, and you are going to struggle, especially if, like Scotland, you lose the cornerstone of your pack, though I have to say WP Nel did his job superbly after he came on (which is just as well as he will be needed for at least the next two matches, though I am writing this ahead of last night’s disciplinary hearing).

By the strict reading of the law, both decisions were correct. O’Mahony was reckless and there were no obvious mitigating circumstances. There was some mitigation for Fagerson as Wyn Jones had started to move upwards when contact occurred, but referee Matthew Carley had little choice but to send him off because World Rugby quite rightly wants all dangerous or reckless contact to the head to be severely punished, i.e. a red card on most such occasions.

That’s the trouble with laws and their interpretation. Ultimately it is always the referee’s final decision, even if he or she needs to consult touch judges and TMOs, and while World Rugby’s instruction on head contact are crystal clear, it has become evident in recent years that referees differ greatly on how they umpire one of the key elements of rugby, namely the breakdown and the ruck.

I have seen it suggested that the ruck should now be banned because it is too dangerous, but my answer to that is you might as well ban scrummaging and lineouts and play a bastardised version of rugby league.

Some of the best international matches I have ever seen involved dynamic, often fiercely brutal, rucking. I was present as a spectator at all four matches of the 1984 and 1990 Grand Slams, and they had Jim Telfer’s fast rucking game written all over them. Melrose’s greatest ever product was coach in the former Slam and assistant coach to Sir Ian McGeechan in 1990, and the Scottish packs in both Slam-winning teams were drilled in the science of winning the ball at the breakdown, rucking quick and hard, and setting up more attacks. Those two packs were also adept at slowing down and often stopping their opponents’ attacks on the ground, it should be said.

Players like Jim Calder and David Leslie in 1984 and John Jeffrey and Fin Calder in 1990 were just as happy on the ground as they were running with the ball, and Telfer’s devotion to rucking spread throughout the squads. For instance, Jim Aitken’s clinching try against Wales in 1984 came from two driving rucks set up by Iain Milne and Roy Laidlaw. Euan Kennedy’s try against England that year also came off quickly won ruck ball in which almost all the Scottish pack drove over the ball, and Peter Dods’ clinching penalty was conceded by England in face of a dark blue ruck.

The 1990 Grand Slam team contained tremendously committed individuals and I think all of them were drilled to perfection in the rucking game. Indeed all the best Scottish teams of the last 40 years were consummate ruckers, but it’s worth recalling what Telfer said about the 1984 squad: “We developed a rucking game because it suited our purposes. We didn’t have the biggest group of forwards in the world but we were dynamic.”

Not the biggest, but the best. The problem with the rucking game nowadays is that just about everybody that gets involved in rucks is just so big, so muscular, that sheer bulk often dictates who wins rucks and for that matter mauls, scrums and lineouts as well.

MY favourite back row forwards were David Leslie, John Jeffrey and Fin Calder. All were supremely fit but were not the giant muscular types that you see nowadays. All were highly intelligent men that you wanted to ask the question: “Why do enjoy rucking so much? Why do you put your bodies into a world of pain?”

I’m sure they would at least partly answer “because Jim Telfer told us to”, but the real answer is because rucking is part of rugby and especially the kind of dynamic forward play that was, and is, an integral part of Scotland’s play. I daresay they would also all be of the opinion that rucking must stay.

What needs to change is the lack of consistency among referees. Most coaches these days will admit to “playing the referee” and that means studying how an individual referee interprets the laws and adjusting your game accordingly. I have always advocated that referees should say how they will approach a game, and if rucking is to continue, coaches and players need to know in advance what will be permitted at a ruck, or not, because believe it or not the ruck law isn’t perfect. But then what is these days?

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