Poor Refereeing? It Could be Worse. It Could be Rugby League

The spotlight has rightly been turned onto refereeing this season in both the Rugby codes. For too long now both games have been turning into soccer where the impact of the man in the middle with the whistle (or in the case of Rugby League the two men in the middle wearing pink and looking strangely emasculated) has become immense and can actually influence the result of the game. But in League it's errors that are causing the angst while in Rugby it's interpretations and rule changes that lead to headaches. The Rolling Maul investigates.

In Rugby League, especially in recent weeks, a series of on and off-field refereeing mistakes, usually at the expense of the Bulldogs (must be fate) and the Rolling Maul's work tips, have seen much navel gazing at NRL headquarters and from the media. Rugby Union has been strangely immune from such introspection. The big picture - ELVs, interpretations and entertainment value - have the been the mantra for season 2009.

So what is Rugby Union doing right (or perhaps more accurately - different)? The answer lies in the rules and the nature of the games.

Rugby Union is a complex game, more a black art than a join the dots. The mysteries of the scrum, ruck, maul and line out are known only to a few. The rules are written by quill in tiny script in 32 dusty 5 inch thick volumes kept in a vault with foot thick steel and time delay locks at IRB headquarters which are rumoured to be in the Middle East or on a secret volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific frequented only by petrels and James Bond arch-villains. The rules themselves are released one at a time every five years in a secret ceremony that involves the slaying of a virgin winger (because they're easy to find).

It's why on the field the referee is free to interpret the ancient scrolls and fill in the gaps in their knowledge as best they see fit. No one is any the wiser. You can't argue against a point you don't know.

When a Rugby referee has a bad game it's because he allows too much kicking or is pedantic about 'hands in the ruck' or 'lying on the ball' or some other meaningless phrase which has been invented to let referees feel self-important when they say it. Rarely does a Rugby referee make a bad decision because no one knows what the decision was.

Rugby League on the other hand is a simple game. Five tackles and kick is all you need to know. Of course league-types like to pretend that their game is full of subtle nuances and delicate interplay between tough and skillful proponents. The reality is that the 13 thugs of each team need to keep things basic. As a result, any imposition of complexity on the tiny minds that don't understand anything more complex than "run, get up, run again, kick" is bound to lead to chaos. When a Rugby League referee makes a decision, as opposed to babysitting the naughty kiddies, everyone starts bawling their eyes out and wants to take their ball home. Rugby League is the sport that refuses to grow up.

Don't expect any changes soon. The ELVs haven't been introduced into Rugby Union to simplify the rules, just make more of them. And for as long as Neanderthals are free to roam the Earth then Rugby League will continue to be their outlet for their aggression and sexual tension. The more the rules of Rugby League stop these men being men the more that aggression and sexual tension will be released off the field. Rugby League referees need to heed this warning.

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