In the 72nd minute of today’s Six Nations match at Twickenham, Wales were attacking in England’s 22 when replacement prom Tomas Francis entered a ruck. In the process of his not-particularly-effective clear-out, his open hand met the face of England prop Dan Cole.
Play stopped immediately after as referee Craig Joubert awarded Wales a penalty for an English infringement during the previous phase. During the stoppage, the television match official called his attention to the incident. Following a few replays and a brief discussion, the two came to the conclusion that Francis’s actions constituted dangerous play and were reckless-at-best. Francis was given a talking-to and the penalty was reversed.
The moment this happened, I was reminded of an incident two weeks ago involving England fullback Mike Brown against Ireland, in which Brown twice caught Irish scrum half Conor Murray in the head with his boot as he kicked at the ball on the ground. On that occasion, referee and TMO also reviewed the video of the incident, but concluded that Brown had no intent to kick Murray in the head and took no action.
I believe one incident reminded me of another because they are, essentially, the same. I hesitate to make judgements on a player’s intent from a distance, but as best I can tell, I don’t think either Francis or Brown acted with malice. I think both sought to secure possession for their team within the laws of the game, and both inadvertently committed dangerous acts. Yet the officiating teams came to two very different conclusions. With hindsight, it appears that neither incident was pivotal in the outcome of either game. But with the range of outcomes stretching from no action to a red card, these are vital decisions in a game. If they didn’t change the results of these particular matches, they might the next time. These decisions have to be made consistently by all officials. I can appreciate the difficulty in factoring into a decision the intent of a player, as well as the clear fact of fingers over the eyes or a boot in the face. But consistency is key. World Rugby must make a decision on the importance of intent, malice and any other intangible factors and make sure all referees stick to the script.
The matter may not yet be closed, as Joubert made oddly clear at the time. Mike Brown was cited and cleared following his incident. Tomas Francis must wait to find out if he has a case to answer. If he does, the disparity in outcomes could be wider still.
This is only a particularly recent and visible example of the inconsistency which plagues the game. Rugby union is a notoriously difficult sport to referee, with technical infringements occurring at almost very ruck, every maul, every scrum. There’s always someone off their feet, in at the side, holding on, and the game is played with such force that a routine tackle can become something resembling a violent assault in a heartbeat. The sensibilities and interpretations of every referee have an enormous effect on what they pick up and what they gloss over. Some favour attackers or defenders, some are overly lenient or unsympathetically pedantic. Each seems to have their own pet infringements, as arguably seen today when Joubert was aggressive in penalising tacklers for failing to roll away. There exists an acceptance that the best referees are actually those who are able to ignore just enough to let the game flow without letting every ruck become a lawless free-for-all.
This variance leaves players having to relearn the laws game after game as they work out what kind of interpretation they’re working under this time. It leaves fans confused and frustrated. Perhaps most importantly for those who run the game, it will leave the many more casual television viewers shaking their heads and changing the channel. The scrum is the most visible and most discussed aspect of the problem, but similar inconsistency exits in every facet of the game, and it has to be fixed.