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The importance of error

March 14, 2011

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Cartoon licensed (yes I did pay) from Cartoon Stock It was too good not to use.

While this posting has Rugby as a subject, it also makes some wider points about systems in general for which Rugby events at the weekend serve as an illustration.

Who would want to be a referee? In the Magners League their match day shirts are sponsored by a leading optician, ironically building on the have you got your specs on call of the disgruntled supporters. This weekend one (or possibly two depending on your position) matches turned on poor decisions by leading referees. England beat Scotland on the basis of a try scored from a forward pass while Scotland were down to 14 men after a very dubious yellow card. They also were stopped in their best attacking movement by the referee pulling a muscle and were penalised in another attacking position for a crooked feed which was straighter than any other scrum in the match. Just to make it clear, that is the opinion of the former England player Brian Moore who was commenting on the match, so its not just celtic solidarity on my part.

In the Wales-Ireland match our try came from a quick line out which broke all the rules but was not spotted by the officials. It looks likely that the officials will be censured and down graded as a result. Now I agree with that as they also failed to punish continual crossing by the Irish backs, offside offenses by their loose forwards and a rather nasty (and obviously rehearsed) approach to the maul which involved tightening the elbow around the neck of the ball carrier to force release. Now I understand the Irish are upset about the quick throw in. I was very upset in 1989 when they won an equally close match based on a blatant knock on. You win some you loose some. I hope it fires them up to beat the English by at least 50 points next week and thus increase our changes of winning the Championship in Paris a few hours later. Overall however I think we more than deserved the win and the referee was even handed in the application of his incompetence. I don’t expect Irish friends (or enemies for that matter) to accept this but the balance of independent comment in the press agrees with me this morning (smug smile).

Now all of this has resulted in demands for greater use of video replays which I think is a mistake. At the moment the video replay can only be brought into play in the in goal area and the slow down in the match that results is already too long. If we add it in at all points in the match then rugby will loose all of its flow and excitement and become a series of staged event separated by static periods. If you want to see what happens go to an American Football match and you will see what I mean. They have lots of referees, lots of conferences, lots of replays and there is no real flow to the game. OK it creates more time for advertising, but it reduces the spectacle.

Learning to play the referee is a part of a Rugby match, there are many rules and much ambiguity. The nature of this can be shown when the International Rugby Board changed the nature of the game earlier this year not by creating a new law, but asking referees to enforce an existing one. A Rugby match is not a science it is an art. The fact that different referees interpret the rules in a different way provides greater variety which not only makes for a better spectacle but also allows for the game to evolve as negative and positive patterns emerge. Eliminate error, make all judgements objective and subject to challenge and you end up with a machine not a complex ecology.

Rugby is (or should be) based on core principles such as an equal contest for the ball rather than a rigid rule system. As in Rugby, so in the world.

PS, for an Irish captain to complain about another team slowing down the ball in the final minutes to preserve the lead is well, incredible.

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