21 October 2015


Antoinette Muller

In the closing stages of the Rugby World Cup quarter-final between Australia and Scotland, it appeared, against all odds, that the brave Scots were on their way to be the Northern Hemisphere's only representative in the semi-finals. It was not to be. Minutes later, South African referee Craig Joubert awarded Australia a penalty that Bernard Foley duly kicked over to give the Wallabies a dramatic victory. Since then the rugby world has been divided into those who are calling for Joubert's head and those staunchly defending the ref.What is not up for debate is that the sport needs a good long hard look in the mirror as this could have easily been avoided if players had the power to review a decision.

Craig Joubert (R) looks on as the Scottish and Australian packs wrestle for control in their quarter-final clash at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Joubert has come under fire for his controversial decision to award Australia a penalty in the dying seconds of the match.  Reuters / Stefan Wermuth

Craig Joubert (R) looks on as the Scottish and Australian packs wrestle for control in their quarter-final clash at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Joubert has come under fire for his controversial decision to award Australia a penalty in the dying seconds of the match. Reuters / Stefan Wermuth

If you were watching the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal between Scotland and Australia, you most likely experienced a wide range of emotions and ultimately disappointment if you, like everyone who isn’t Australian, don’t like Australia.

A penalty decision was awarded to Australia as the clock started ticking towards closing time. The kick went over and Australia snuck into the semifinals, slightly by crook. The decision was hotly debated.

World Rugby later issued a statement saying referee Craig Joubert made the wrong call in applying Law 11.7 and penalising Scotland’s Jon Welsh, who had played the ball following a knock-on by a teammate, resulting in an offside. The sport's governing body said that after a review "it is clear that after the knock-on, the ball was touched by Australia’s Nick Phipps and Law 11.3(c) states that a player can be put on-side by an opponent who intentionally plays the ball".

South African referee Jonathan Kaplan weighed in on the debate, saying: “I have regularly expressed deep concern that the laws of the game are too complex, not only for the public, but for the players too. To have this much conjecture is not good for anyone, least of all the integrity of the game. There are laws in the law book that we knowingly and willingly don’t apply and there are addendums, or whatever you want to call them, to help clarify what is stated in the law book. Is this good for the game?”

He makes a valid point, but there is also the issue of technology. According to World Rugby, Joubert could not refer the decision to the television match official (TMO). What he could have done, is asked for the decision to be replayed on the big screen, but he didn’t.

But this brings us to the crucial point. Why is there not room for interference in a situation as crucial as this one? Yes, mistakes happen and there have been many mistakes in the past, but isn’t the whole point of using technology in sport to avoid mistakes at all costs?

While it is certainly not practical to allow for it in all cases, because you might as well get rid of the on-field referee in that case and replace him with a robot that speaks in Nigel Owens’ voice, it is surely manageable in crunch matches? In situations where a decision could decide a game, surely the TMO should be allowed to intervene and relay to the on-field umpire what he has seen?

If that sounds far too complicated then perhaps a simpler solution is in order. Why not allow captains to review certain decisions? It is perhaps the one instance in which rugby can actually learn from cricket. As with the decision review system (DRS), why not allow captains one review per game – for any decision – to solve problems like this? The system has been tested in South Africa’s Varsity Cup competition with moderate success.

Through the middle of the season, the white card had a 41.18% success rate. Of the white cards used at the time of the Varsity Cup, 57% overturned a foul-play decision, meaning dangerous and early tackles are being clamped down on thanks to the use of technology. But the system was not without its challenges. Each team was allowed two challenges per match, one in each half, but it was found that these reviews often slowed down the game quite significantly as players reviewed decisions somewhat haphazardly. But it’s import to note that these things will happen in the teething stages of a new system. We saw it when cricket first introduced the DRS and we are still seeing it to some extent – sometimes players use the system strategically when they are desperate in the hopes that they’ll bag a 'get out of jail free' card. Limiting the number of reviews will help curb this 'willy nilly' approach by players. Tennis, too, allows for a challenge without too much fuss. Yes, rugby matches can feel too stop-start, but surely officials will want the correct decision to be made at all times?

Rugby has a pretty good track record when it comes to implementing and trusting technology and it is streets ahead of other sports like cricket and soccer. If ruby truly wants to embrace the wonders of technology and its effectiveness then it has to be all or nothing – chance should simply not play a role.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016. 

This article was originally published by the Daily Maverick.