The occurrence of a “dodgy decision” during a game can have the Sky commentary team discussing the hows and whys for too long a time than the decision warranted. And that was when the decision had no real effect on the actual outcome of the game.
But it’s not just the commentary team that are often left clueless at a referee’s decision. Too often, the fans themselves are left wondering why something happened.
It all surmounts to a state of confusion that cannot be healthy for the game. The frustration caused is a damaging factor. It may not have fans turning off from watching the sport, but it doesn’t exactly have them happy.
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There are a few reasons for the continued confusion for fans and commentators alike.
Most obviously, but perhaps most rarely, is that referee sometimes – sometimes – make the wrong decision. It happens, just like a player makes the wrong decision in the game. People are people. Such cannot be helped.
Secondly, there is, at times, a lack of knowledge on the part of those confused. This can be justified somewhat.
Decisions such as what constitutes a forward pass with the momentum rule; how far behind a player another must be so that it is/isn’t an obstruction; whether a player knocks on, or the ball bounces backwards first; and whether a player is within 10m of a kick tacker, are all subjective decisions.
With 3 or 4 or even 5 commentators all covering the same game, each with a different opinion of their own, it is easy to see how the talking points of a split second decision can shape the conversation of the game, and continue to confuse and mystify the viewers.
But the final, and the most crucial problem, is twofold. Firstly, some of the rules can be very confusing, as was highlighted with the subjective decisions that must be made. Secondly, there is no consistency; in almost every preseason, the RFL implements some rule change; be it an addition, a removal, or a slight technical change.
The complexity of the rules is often very subtle.
Take quick restarts, as an example.
On a 20m restart, the team restarting the ball must all be behind the 20m line; if they are, a quick tap can go ahead. But on penalties, if a team wants to tap the ball quickly, they must wait for the team who has conceded a penalty to be in front of the ball (that is, between where the penalty is being taken from and the try line they’re defending). Why the difference?
There are numerous other examples: a team can opt for 2 points from a penalty unless it was a penalty at the scrum; a drop out is either on the 20m line – if it’s from a penalty – or the try line, if the defending team takes the ball over.
And who knows the criteria for whether or not a player can be judged to have intentionally played at the ball for a knock on?
But just as a fan, a commentator, and a player are getting their heads around the rules, there is some change implemented in the preseason. One that usually takes the opening five, six, or seven rounds of Sky games to explain.
It was seen in the beginning of 2015 with the on-field referee stating whether they believed a try should or should not be given before sending it to the video referee. And however a player is meant to take a ball over the dead ball line – well, who knows? That has changed a few times over the past few seasons.
Not all rule changes are bad, it must be said. Stopping any connection with the corner flag from being ruled as in touched a few years ago has given the platform for some amazing tries. But the bad has unfortunately ruled out the good.
Enter Stuart Cummings.
Cummings joined the Sky commentary team in 2013. He’d been a first grade referee since 1991 and Match Officials Director since 2002.
He’s given the title of “Special Comments” when commentating, but his job is simple: explain the referee’s decisions.
And this, I think, he does remarkably well. Not only is he quick to tell a commentator that what they’ve said is misinformed or wrong, he’s happy enough to say the same of a referee on field.
He also provides the explanation of what a video referee is looking for in making their decision.
This was, for a brief spell, done by the video referee themselves (and still is when the BBC covers the sport for 7 or 8 games a year). Either way, the objectivity of a proven referee ceases the speculation and opinions of the commentators who are, often, guessing at what the video referee is deciding.
I also believe that he is listening to the conversations of the referee and his touch judges and video refs, and passes these messages and justifications of decisions on to the viewer, which no doubt helps.
The rapidity with which Cummings is able to quell any such wild speculation and allow the focus of commentators and fans to return to the game is helpful beyond measure.
The Love and the Hate
Doubtless to the quality of the job that Cummings does, the problem still remains that he is a necessity.
The same can be said of the weekly “Ask the Ref” on Twitter; a brilliant concept that helps fans understand why certain decisions were made during games.
But, the sport needs to put itself into a position where a weekly clarification of dozens – if not hundreds – of questions need be answered from six games a weekend.
Such is the love and the hate. The love is that Cummings provides excellent insight and justification for those decisions which can, quite honestly, seem baffling, or straight up illogical. But the hate is that the game needs him there.
In a time where rugby league needs to secure itself, financially and socially, the resolute fan base needs not be alienated with complexity and absurdity, and the new fans need a game to watch that is both entertaining and not riddled with dubious decisions. Simplicity and consistency must be the key going forward.