It’s common knowledge, with regards to the style and tempo each hemisphere plays its rugby, that in the North it is slower and more contact oriented whereas down South there is far more emphasis on quick running rugby and a high tempo. These differing approaches add to the sport in their own way, but could these differences have a direct impact on the way referees from the both Hemispheres interpret the laws of rugby?
In the Southern Hemisphere the main point of contention for referees is at scrum time and at breakdowns. The perception in the Northern Hemisphere is that the scrum itself is totally undervalued and probably misunderstood by the Southern Hemisphere referees. During the 2003 World Cup Final, Andre Watson exemplified this when he awarded consecutive free-kicks to an inferior Australian scrum and nearly stole the victory away from England. It’s totally understandable that these inconsistencies occur, given the sporting cultures referees from each hemisphere are exposed to, but for the game to move forward collectively it has to be addressed.
In the breakdown, Southern Hemisphere referees are deemed too strict, particularly when competing for the ball; in the first test of the Lions tour in 2013 Brian O’Driscoll was relentlessly penalised when competing to steal the ball at the breakdown despite arguably doing nothing illegal. There is a belief that, due to this ‘ball in hand’ culture that has been adopted by the teams within the Southern Hemisphere, the battles that occur at the breakdown week in week out during the Aviva Premiership, Top 14 and Pro 12 are not an integral part of rugby.
Alternatively in the Northern Hemisphere, the breakdown is an area that contains mass controversy for the opposite reasons. Many referees are guilty of being too lenient, particularly when players seem to consistently secure the ball from the opposition in an illegal fashion. There have been a number of instances during premiership matches this season where players fly in off their feet to clear rucks, consequently killing the ball and preventing the opposition from competing for it legally, yet these misdemeanours go unpunished. Northern Hemisphere players will never learn to appreciate the importance of fast flowing rugby if they are constantly officiated to suit a slow game.
Being a fan of both Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby I who would love to see these differences removed from the game and a level of competitive continuity established. I believe quarterly meetings should be organised by World Rugby to tackle these gaps in officiating that exist within the professional game. These meetings should see the referees from the both Hemispheres come together and scrutinise their own performances and begin to establish solidarity and unity in the way they perceive the game. There should be total consistency between these elite groups of referees no matter where they officiate domestically. Realistically though, there will always be conflict present.
This conflict I speak of will always be present because referees are influenced by the rugby culture they develop under, and if that is all you know then that is how you will interpret certain situations on the field. It seems crass that team’s tactical choices for a match are reflected on the referee selection, but it has become part of rugby. As World Rugby moves forward this controversial topic will undoubtedly enter the spotlight again, but hopefully as rugby continues to progress and expand these considerable disparities between the two hemispheres will become a less prominent area of controversy. The proposed meetings are definitely an area that should be capitalised on, and even if small strides are made in unifying the way referees officiate within both Hemispheres it should be considered a great achievement.