For the first time in the Rugby World Cup’s comparatively short history, the hosts have not progressed to the knock-out stages. It’s not only the England team that is in trouble, the game itself is facing significant challenges. There are concerns about head injuries, the brutal nature of the game more generally and worries about methods used to attain the massive physiques required to survive and thrive in the modern era.
These are all genuine moral issues, but my concern goes right to the heart of good sporting contests. Although many people baulk at the very concept of sports ethics, moral principles are fundamental to the very notion of a sporting contest. Justice, fairness and merit are definitive. We want contestants in sport to deserve their victories. We want their victories to be caused by their efforts. The physical characteristics of speed, power, strength, fitness, skill and resilience coupled with the mental qualities of tactical acumen and applied with tenacity, courage and determination are what should take a team to victory.
Rugby is such a complex game and its laws are being constantly broken. The referee must exercise judgement in deciding which offence to punish. Some are more difficult than others and we are familiar with expressions such as: “referee X is fussy about the contact area” or: “referee Y is really hard on players not releasing”. The referee tries to make sure the game is being played according to the laws so that as far as possible the best team wins.
The trouble with the scrum
This is not an easy task in any facet of play, but identifying the offender or offenders in the event of a scrum is particularly difficult. If the scrum collapses, or “pops up” or “wheels” too far the assumption is that a player or players have committed one of many possible offences.
A prop might have broken a bind, exerted downward pressure or not pushed straight. The frustrating thing for spectators and players alike is that often the decision by the referee looks like an educated guess at best and an arbitrary pronouncement at worst.
The consequence, however, can be absolutely decisive – the difference between winning and losing, being world champions or runners up. Awarding a penalty for a scrum offence can provide a team with the opportunity to kick for goal and secure the decisive points needed to win the game.
There is scope for mistakes in all decisions, but the scrum is fundamentally flawed. It is often impossible to follow (not offend) or apply the laws (identify the offender). First, the sheer biomechanical complexity and the combination of forces involved means that even the most advanced sports scientist in a laboratory could not isolate the cause of a scrum collapsing, wheeling or “popping up”.
Let me focus on one offence. A scrum collapses as a result of a chain of events involving both teams. Even if the latest technology could map the sequence of events accurately, we would still be required to decide which one would be seen as decisive – the “cause” of the collapse. Referees will never have technological aids to tell them who caused the collapse and therefore who should be punished 100% of the time. They have to rely on other cues, experience and intuition. They may of course be right on occasions, but that is not an expression of genuine knowledge.
If they are uncertain, the referee should reset the scrum. Potentially therefore, there could be an infinite number of scrums. Justice should not be rushed, but players and spectators alike would soon turn their back on a game where scrums proliferate. Referees are thereby required to act decisively to avoid repetitive scrums by identifying and punishing an offender. Despite the absence of unequivocal evidence, the referee has to make a call. Often the team deemed to have the weakest scrum is penalised.
It certainly doesn’t follow that the weakest team is guilty. Scrummaging superiority is often attributed to “dark arts” – dubious and deceptive tactics which force the opponent’s scrum to disintegrate.
But even if the referee could be certain that the scrum collapse was a result of one team failing to withstand the pressure from the other team, this does not mean that they should be punished. It may be physically impossible for them not to break the law. The combination of forces on their body means that they are not acting, but being acted upon. Their actions are out of their hands – they are subject to forces that they cannot resist.
This is not an observation about the relative ability or intention of any given player, but an observation about the scrum. The players did not intend to collapse the scrum, in fact they may have been trying their best not to, given the potential consequences. When a player is singled out as the offender, they are often being punished for an act over which they had little or no control. Strictly speaking, they don’t deserve to be punished and their team surely does not deserve to lose.
Some may counter that the penalty is just reward for superior skill, but there are problems with this approach. What is a weaker scrum to do? Retreat backward towards their own try line in an orderly fashion? Even if they attempted to stay bound, keep square on with shoulders above hips, they will inevitably offend or be judged to have offended.
The reward for superior skill in rugby should be tries and the scrum is supposed to provide an opportunity for one team to gain possession and attack the open field. Instead the scrum is a lottery providing a slow ball at best and a sequence of penalties at worst. For teams who are dominant, it is now used as a tactic to get a penalty or a penalty try and potentially to reduce the opposition numbers as a result of a yellow card.
So the scrum as practised today has little to do with justice, fairness or merit and perhaps more importantly for the World Cup, has little to do with entertainment. Let’s hope that the decisive score in this year’s World Cup isn’t the result of the referee guessing who offended.