Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Balance of probabilities

The RFL list nine people under the full-time match officials section on their website. All of them have come in for varying levels of opprobrium in recent weeks from large sections of the rugby league public, from spectators to coaches and administrators. Some of the wilder accusations are of particular referees having a vendetta against certain clubs to the RFL conspiring to keep clubs out of it's showpiece events. But the more general chatter is simply a background hum of whining about how they're all rubbish and the standard of refereeing is at an all-time low.

But can this be right? It sounds preposterous. What likelihood is there that nine separated individuals are all just bad at their job, especially when few complaints were made less than twelve months ago? The principle of Occam's razor says that the explanation which makes fewest assumptions is most likely the correct one and suggesting conspiracies or a group of nine people suddenly failing to do things they were doing well until recently does not fit that maxim. There has to be a simpler explanation stemming from something consistent to every aspect of the debate.

The item that's common in all these arguments is the rules. Every year, we get a series of tweaks to the rules and directives on certain aspects. Consequently, the current code has a haphazard look about it with vast swathes of rules open to the interpretation of the referee rather than a black and white, this is OK, that isn't approach. For example, rules about whether there's an intention to play at a ball when judging knock-ons and whose scrum it is are almost impossible to police, as are ball steal/loose carry decisions or judgments regarding intent. Without seeing into the mind of the player in question, it's an impossible task and when rules become that hard to police, then it's not the fault of the policeman trying to enforce it. And when so much of the game is down to interpretation, consistency goes out of the window and that's where the frustration comes from. Moreover, where there's obvious confusion over the application of a particular rule, it adds scope for players to push the boundaries, use obfuscation and downright duplicity to con penalties and give us the unedifying sight of umpteen players all trying to referee the game at the same time. That's something that's been noticeably increasing as the rulebook has evolved.

So, short of appointing Derren Brown to referee all Super League games, what can be done? The rules need clarifying and a complete review is required - start with a blank piece of paper and a debate about what we want the game to look like and go from there. Rugby league's unique selling point used to be it's simplicity, but the endless debates over minutiae of every decision shows that to not be the case any more. What the final outcome of such a review would produce is almost secondary - whether the defensive line remains at ten metres or goes back to five isn't as important as coming up with something coherent, unified, straightforward and, most crucially, easily policed. It doesn't need to be too complex - go back to the mark, play it with your foot, don't smack anyone round the chops and don't swear at the officials. Start with that and maybe that background hum of whinging about it will drop off and be replaced by coaches, administrators and fans having to explain why their team has lost without turning into a great conspiracy theorist.

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