Rugby World Cup referees have come in for a lot of criticism during the opening weeks of the competition. Some of this is fair but much of the criticism has been taken too far.
Here at Last Word on Rugby, we will be offering a partial defence of the officiating so far. There have been some poor decisions made but on the whole, the standard is not significantly lower than normal.
Heightened Coverage Creates an Echo Chamber
The Rugby World Cup is one of the most-watched and covered sporting events in the world. As a result, everyone is under increased scrutiny and pressure. This applies as much to the referees as anyone else.
Due to this increased coverage, there are more eyes on the game and therefore more eyes on the refs. This means that every slight mistake they make is spotted and magnified.
The more eyes watching the matches means more social media coverage, which in turn means everything becomes magnified. This gives the impression that mistakes referees make are worse or more frequent than they actually are.
heightened coverage creates an echo chamber magnifying the negativity surrounding officiating.
Rugby World Cup is a Tougher Job for Referees
This Rugby World cup is proving to be one of the toughest for the referees. Ball-in-play time is up by over a minute throughout the game meaning it is faster and more intense.
A number of close games including upsets by Japan and Uruguay are also often contentious in nature. The slippery conditions across Japan also make scrappy rugby at times which is some of the most difficult to referee.
Blaming Officials a Pressure Release for Coaches
The pressure of a World Cup does not just hit players, as discussed in a previous article on drop-goals at the World Cup, but also coaches. At this Rugby World Cup, we have seen Coaches blaming referees to try and mask poor performances.
Michael Cheika gave a fiery interview after Australia’s loss to Wales. Joe Schmidt revealed to the media that World Rugby admitted Angus Gardner made mistakes in their game with Japan.
“Maybe Australia’s not allowed to scrum any good”
Oh dear… ?
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) September 29, 2019
It is not uncommon for coaches to moan about referees but it appears to be more obvious at this Rugby World Cup. The World Cup is where most international coaches are judged and as a result, they are feeling the pressure more than most.
Blaming referees is an easy out for under-pressure coaches looking to defend a poor performance.
World Rugby is not Helping their Referees
World Rugby is also partly to blame for the criticism of referees at this World Cup. After the first round of games, they issued a statement saying they were disappointed with the performances of their referees.
They also decided to remove Angus Gardner from his scheduled game between England and Argentina. All of this serves to heighten the noise surrounding Rugby World Cup Referees.
— Last Word on Rugby (@LWOSRugby) October 5, 2019
By not backing their own referees, World Rugby is inviting further criticism on to the officials. This only serves to add to the pressure on them and could lead to a decrease in performance.
High Tackles Directives have been Poorly Timed
Much of the criticism directed at the Rugby World Cup referees have been to do with high tackles. New directives have been brought in by World Rugby, over the last 18 months, to lower the tackle height and improve safety.
This is a major change for players and understandably has taken time to bed in. We saw a similar period when changes were made to the law surrounding lifting in the tackle and challenges in the air.
However, these changes were made over two years before a World Cup allowing players and coaches to get used to them before the biggest competition.
In the case of the high tackle laws we are seeing the World Cup, the players are not used to them which places referees in a difficult position. They are unwilling to dish out red and yellow cards but in places, they are left with little choice.
Referees are not supposed to be the main talking point of the Rugby World Cup. However, the criticism they have received has put them at the centre of attention. The issue that we are now facing is that the scrutiny on referees is not going to subside and as a result, they could be forced to make big decisions that have lasting effects on this Rugby World Cup.
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