Sticking to the Letter of the Law

Whatever the sport the common cry from fans is that they want the rules or laws to be clear cut, and the officiating of those rules or laws to be consistent. Sadly some sports still leave many rules or laws open to the interpretation of the referee or the umpire. This is all well and good, and makes sense in principle, but can expose the officials to a backlash post game.

This was witnessed at the Hockey World League semi finals in London, when England played Canada and a place at the World Cup Finals next year was on the line. A long overhead pass was launched into the Canadian “D,” Canada goalkeeper David Carter stayed on his line as the ball was about to sail harmlessly into the back of his goal; to be a goal in hockey an attacking player must get a touch inside the “D.” England’s Barry Middleton came running into the “D” lifted his stick into the path of the ball in the air, managed to get a touch, Carter tried to deflect the ball away from goal but it ended up in the goal and the umpire awarded a goal. There was a video referral to see if the rules had been breached, the rule in which the player that is initially under the ball without any players within 5m has the right to receive the overhead. If any other player runs in then they’re infringing and a free is awarded against them.

After referral the goal stood, it was a game changer for Canada. They lost their focus, a player was sin-binned and England went on to win the game and play in the semi finals. Canada however look as if they will have made the World Cup after beating India and finishing fifth.

Post game there were discussions amongst the officials and opinion was split as to whether the goal should have stood. The powers that be felt that it should not have. Here is a clear cut example of how a rule needs to be made clearer for umpires, players and fans.

At the weekend in the Super Rugby Final between the Lions of South Africa and the Crusaders of New Zealand in the 38th minute the Lions’ Kwagga Smith was shown a red card by referee Jaco Peyper after he made contact with Crusaders full back David Havili in the air. Havili fell very awkwardly and dangerously and it did not look good.

The referee went to the Television Match Official before making a decision, and reluctantly sent Smith from the field, and effectively killed any chances the Lions had of winning the game.

Law 10.4(e)states: Dangerous tackling of an Opponent amended to Law 10.4(i) Tackling, pushing, pulling, colliding with or otherwise making contact with an Opponent who is jumping for the ball in a line out or in open play where there is no realistic prospect of the player competing for the ball.

Smith was chasing a high ball at speed. Havili jumped to claim the ball in the air, and on the replay, you can see Smith raise his arms to try and withdraw from the impact, he also leans back, trying to avoid contact with Havili.

In fact it is the television replay that does Smith more harm, as it does not show the incident in real-time. When you watch the play in real-time, the question is where could Smith have gone? Could he have changed direction? Could he have stopped? If you see his body language he clearly tried to.

The officials were 100% right with the decision that they made, because here the laws are clear cut. Smith’s challenge contravened the laws. It was careless. Not surprisingly Lions fans felt hard done by, and felt that a yellow card would have been more appropriate, as it was careless rather than malicious. Even some commentators felt a yellow would have been a better option, ‘especially in a final.’ This last comment, which has been bandied about a fair bit is ridiculous. Are we advocating that just because a game is a final the same rules that were in place all season no longer apply, or are not to be administered so stringently?

The truth is as good as it is to use television slow motion replays to ensure that the right decisions are made, sometimes it is more beneficial to see the action again at normal speed to see it from a players perspective. In slow motion it may look like a player can pull out of a challenge, but in reality they are already committed, and the best they can do is pull back to try and lessen the impact.

Smith rightly received a red card, and he along with the Lions fans will no doubt remember that moment forever. It will not be a pleasant memory.

To rub salt into their wounds it has been announced today that in addition to the punishment on the day he will now have to serve a four game suspension. The SANZAAR Foul Play Review Committee has accepted a guilty plea from Kwagga Smith of the Lions for contravening Law 10.4(i).

The offence could have seen him sit out eight games, but as the media release states: “With respect to sanction the Foul Play Review Committee deemed the act of foul play merited a mid-range entry point of 8 weeks. However, taking into account mitigating factors including the Player’s good Judicial record and the Player’s admission of guilt at the first available opportunity the Foul Play Review Committee reduced the suspension to 4 weeks.”

This seems incredibly harsh. Yes, a red card offence usually warrants a suspension, but eight, or even four games for an offence that clearly had no intent or malice behind it seems a little over the top. It also appears to be punishing the player twice.

Football has argued for a long time that players who give away a penalty often end up costing the club more than a goal. The team concedes a penalty, the player is sent off and then post match he receives a suspension. So three punishments for the one offence.

If a player’s actions result in another player being injured there has been an argument that the player that caused the injury through foul play should be required to sit out his or her club’s games until the injured player returns to action for their club. This however becomes complicated if a player breaks his leg, or has an injury that finishes his career.

There is no doubt that fans, players, and even some officials would like the rules in their sport to be clearer, and in some cases appear fairer. With the rising prices of watching live sport fans also want to see the star players playing and not suspended.

Did Smith deserve to rubbed out for four games? In this case has rugby gone too far? Rugby has done well to protect its officials by making the laws of the game black and white, but maybe they have been a little too officious in their rulings post match.

Sticking to the Letter of the Law

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