the tomato in rugby’s fruit salad


If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck, isn’t it? Ah, yes, well, not necessarily. It could be a forward pass, a rugby paradox which, these days, seems to defy rational categorisation. After all, there are (a) forward passes which are forward, (b) forward passes which look to be forward but, in fact, go backwards and (c) forward passes which appear to go backwards, in reality travel forwards but for the purposes of officiating, are, quite rightly, considered to be backwards. Please, feel free to read that paragraph again if you wish. I’m not sure I understand it myself and I’ve just written it.

Alas, only rugby union seems to be able to do this; namely, take the one, single, simple ABC tenet of its sporting philosophy – ‘the ball must be passed backwards’ – and turn into alphabet soup. And what does this leave us with? Well, in Clermont-Ferrand last weekend, it left us with a referee being raspberried from the pitch when, in fact, he’d made absolutely the correct call – as the laws define it – on Dan Carter’s game-breaking ‘forward’ pass to the try-scoring Marc Andreu. And when you stand there and watch an ugly and unnecessary disconnection between one of the world’s best referees – Wayne Barnes – and one of the world’s finest sets of supporters – ‘Les Jaunards’ – your rugby soul gently weeps.

The. Law. Is. An. Ass. There, let’s say what we think, shall we; let’s publish and be damned. ‘Twasn’t always an ass, it should be said, but in the hands of a bunch of nit-picking, caviling, over-zealous rule-mongers at ‘World Rugby’, that’s certainly what it’s become; indeed look for no other reason why the game is becoming lost in a fog of confusion.

But then this is often the case when cod science gets in the way of common sense. What was it Brian O’Driscoll once said? ‘Knowledge is the understanding that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad’. If memory serves, he actually said it to win a sizeable bet with Gordon D’Arcy who’d wagered that he wouldn’t be able to crowbar the quote into a news conference but, hey, if BOD can pinch someone else’s sound-bite, so can I.

Okay, so here we go with the science bit. As far as I understand it, the fact that forward passes are now classed as backward passes rests on a smorgasbord of several, vaguely familiar theorems; in no particular order, Angular Dynamics, the Law of Relative Velocity, Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion, (aka the Law of Inertia), Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and, last but not least, Galilean Transformation, which – does this really need explaining – is a set of classical equations that relate to the space and time co-ordinates of two objects moving at a constant velocity relative to each other and which formally express the ideas that (a) space and time are absolute; (b) that length, time and mass are independent of the relative motion of the observer but that (c) the speed of light depends on the relative motion of the observer. Again, if you need another bite at that paragraph, I’m happy to wait. I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?

Right, where were we? So, in short – if you’re still there – it’s the old Apple Core Out Of The Window On The M4 argument; or in other words, if you want to hit someone full in the chops in Swindon, you need to be lobbing said apple core out of the window somewhere just outside Reading. And – 100% – I get that. If player A is running at five miles an hour and passes behind him to player B who’s also running at five miles an hour, the ball will go forward, despite the fact that it’s passed backwards.

But – and here’s my problem – what’s to stop you taking this Science Train several stations further down the line – indeed all the way to the terminus – and buggering up the game completely? Consider the fact that even when you’re standing still, you’re only standing still relative to the ground you’re actually standing on. However, relative to the Earth’s core – as far as I can fathom – you could be moving at speeds up to 1000mph; relative to the Sun, you’re galloping along at close on 67,000mph and relative to the rest of the galaxy, you’re looking at something touching 500,000mph, which means every pass the sport’s ever thrown – cosmically speaking – has been forward and if every pass is forward then no pass can be forward – because if nothing is ever backwards, forwards has no relevance – and therefore there’s no philosophical, scientific or legal difference between a perfectly horizontal pop pass and Dan Carter throwing Marc Andreu a 50-metre Hail Mary into the Clermont Auvergne end-zone. Milk and two sugars?

Look, all I’m saying here is, can we all just get back to the looks, walks, quacks, ‘Bugger Me, It’s A Duck’ method of assessing these things? So – returning for a moment to the Stade Marcel Michelin – if Andreu catches Carter’s pass ahead of the point at which Carter throws it, it’s a forward pass and, frankly, sod the science. Why? Well, because – as already explained – the science is bollocks and because – even if it wasn’t – the forward pass becomes transparent, obvious and dead simple for everyone – crowds, referees, players, coaches, even dim-witted journalists, no names no pack-drill – to immediately understand.

The game’s complicated enough. Why make it more so? Besides, think of your audience, not least in the stadium in Clermont-Ferrand. All they could see was a referee standing in front of (a) A Big Screen showing (b) A Bloody Obvious Forward Pass while having a conversation they couldn’t hear with a TMO they could neither see nor hear and, between the two of them, coming up with a decision which appeared to be insane. Where’s the consideration in that?

And, again, yes, I hear what you’re saying about the hands facing backwards – the so-called ‘intention’ – but if a hooker throws a ball plumb straight into the lineout and the wind takes it, can he argue it wasn’t actually crooked given his hands were perpendicular to the touchline? And if intention trumps outcome, why is it a red card if two players contest a high ball and one lands on his head and no card whatsoever if both players land on their backsides?

Simplification is the key here and not just with The Forward Pass. ‘Is there any reason why I can’t award the try?’ is a question which means well but which, in practice, complicates what should be a straightforward, ‘hey, Marius, try, yes or no?’ Again, if you were in the crowd at Clermont last weekend, you would’ve had absolutely no idea what the English crew was discussing whenever Wayne Barnes ‘went upstairs’. Yes, you would’ve been able to see the replays but you’d only have been guessing on what the issue was or how the question had been phrased. I’m sorry but spectators deserve better than this; at the very least the knowledge that the question to the TMO will always be a straight, ‘try, yes or no?’ At least then we’d all be on the same page.

And we’d also avoid situations where – for example – driving mauls belly-flop over the line and the referee gets the question wrong. He can’t see a grounding, the TMO can’t see a grounding yet because ‘there’s no reason why …’ then it’s a try. In truth, it probably is but – like the hairy bear taking a shit in the woods – is it a try if no one actually sees it being scored? Or should the referee do what referees do when there’s a pile-up in the NFL and whistle their way into the melee, peeling away layers of players until they find who’s cuddling the ball? To my mind, it wouldn’t hurt. It might not be definitive but it’s worth a go.

Indeed, these forward pass/TMO conundrums – to me – exemplify one of rugby’s enduring issues; to what extent do we want the sport to referee the details and to what extent do we just want the game to flow? I swear if every ruck, scrum or maul were refereed to the very last letter of each and every law, the game would be one, long, eighty-minute whistle. Consistency is – obviously – the key criterion but based on what? A straight feed into a scrum or the ball being shoved under the boots of the second row?

Instead what we’re getting is highly individual interpretations and controversial calls with – as my mate and eminence gris, Mark Robson put it during a fat-chew yesterday morning – huge ‘downloads’. ‘Nigel Owens referees Munster/Toulon’ says Robbo ‘ … no penalty try in the first minute … Muster win … storm Bordeaux in the semi … beat Leinster 53-0 in Bilbao … Johan Van Graan coaches the Lions … Simon Zebo tears up his Racing contract and becomes Taoiseach … or, alternatively … Wayne Barnes referees Munster/Toulon … gives the penalty try … Toulon win … storm Bordeuax in the semi … beat Leinster 53-0 in Bilbao … Johan Van Graan resigns … Simon Zebo becomes a recluse living in a cardboard box just outside Ringaskiddy.’ See? He’s good, isn’t he? I should get him to write all my stuff.

The point being that for all his angles and his gizmos, a TMO isn’t infallible; even Nigel Owens isn’t infallible, as he proved in spades in Limerick on Saturday. So given we’re in an imperfect world, why are we still screaming for perfection? You talk to referees and to TMOs – and I had an hour on the phone this morning with an eminent whistler-blower – and you sense the real frustration they’re feeling too. The extra detail doesn’t always make for a clearer picture.

Indeed Wayne Barnes – not the aforementioned ‘eminent whistle-blower’ on the phone, by the way – getting jeered off the pitch for dropping a bollock is no more than he’d expect. But being jeered off the pitch for correctly applying the laws as they stand is, you suspect, a sufferance he could do without. And, let’s be honest, that goes for the rest of the sport too.

03 APRIL 2018


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