On Tuesday, World Rugby threw one of its most esteemed referees, Craig Joubert, under the bus. It issued a press release focused on one single refereeing decision, from the 78th minute of the Australia v Scotland quarter-final.
The press release notes that Joubert applied Law 11.7. For the record, Law 11.7 reads:
“When a player knocks-on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage.
Sanction: Penalty kick”
World Rugby clarifies:
“On review of all available angles, it is clear that after the knock-on, the ball was touched by Australia’s Nick Phipps and Law 11.3(c) states that a player can be put on-side by an opponent who intentionally plays the ball,” read a World Rugby statement. [my emphasis]
“It is important to clarify that, under the protocols, the referee could not refer to the television match official in this case and therefore had to rely on what he saw in real time. In this case, Law 11.3(c) should have been applied, putting Welsh onside. The appropriate decision, therefore, should have been a scrum to Australia for the original knock-on.”
Law 11.3 reads:
“In general play, there are three ways by which an offside player can be put onside by an action of the opposing team…
A number of things are at issue here. First, it isn’t clear to me at all from the video that Nick Phipps intentionally plays the ball with any success. I’d argue he really has little idea where the ball is as Josh Strauss clatters (legally) into him, as his eyes are closed (See 0:55 in the video).
I think this is the very definition of a 50-50 call. As was pointed out on the GAGR podcast yesterday, the exact same situation unfolded earlier in the match and, on that occasion, Australia only got a scrum. Two 50-50 calls of a similar type, one went one way, the other went the other. That’s rugby.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, it’s awful form of World Rugby to be treating their referees like this. Disclaimer: I’ve met Craig on a number of occasions and he’s a stand up guy. He’s very dedicated to his craft and yet doesn’t take himself too seriously. I’m also a weekly rugby referee (which might colour my perspective here, or give me some actual expertise, or both, or neither; you pick).
In what world does World Rugby think that the sport’s interest lies in publicly hanging a referee out to dry, when we all know that referees will make tough, 50-50, and even outright incorrect calls every week. This isn’t soccer. One of the defining features of the game is its culture, and respect for the referees is, in turn, essential to that culture. WR should be standing up for all of those people who give up their time and allow themselves to be the object of fan redress every week, on rugby grounds all over the world, from suburban Sydney to rural Ireland.
Not to mention that of those thousands of referees – without whom, there is no club rugby, there is no GAGR, and there is no Rugby World Cup – Craig is one of the very most experienced out there. One World Cup final. A whopping 54 test matches. 85 Super Rugby games including 3 finals. A couple of years on the Sevens circuit before all of that to boot.
I hope that the World Rugby executives, with all their extensive experience in such high pressure environments and issuing decrees from a position of substantial anonymity, are comfortable with the shamelessness of what they’ve done.