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Referees proving to be a major obstruction to innovative plays


Matt Burke

Disallowed ...  Adam Ashley-Cooper celebrates his try that never was against the Force last week.

Disallowed ... Adam Ashley-Cooper celebrates his try that never was against the Force last week. Photo: Getty Images

I remember a training session with the Wallabies in Caloundra in 1998. Wayne Bennett had come along to observe. We were trying to expand our attacking prowess and had borrowed some ball-playing techniques that the rugby league boys had been using for quite some time. I'm talking about the second-man plays.

The session went according to plan and we got through what we thought were some reasonable attacking options. Satisfied, the coaching staff thanked Bennett for his time and walked from the field.

A few of the more inquisitive backs, however, stayed behind to talk to Bennett, making the most of a great opportunity to pick the brains of one of the best coaches in either rugby code. We asked him if we had been executing the plays correctly. In a very polite way, he said no. There were no egos among the players in taking the criticism – we wanted to soak up the advice being dished out by the then-Broncos coach.

After 20 minutes we were running lines similar to those we had started with but this time the purpose of where to run was refined. It was as simple as when you are running the short line, attack the outside shoulder of the defender in order to limit the chance of the defender sliding off onto the next attacker. Sounds simple but it works.

We were running too steep and therefore not posing a threat to the defender or being in a position to receive the ball. The second man should run a straighter line rather than a wide arc, running into the hole created by the first runner's decoy.

The reason I'm going into such detail about this is that there is still a limited understanding from the men with the whistle as to what the players are trying to achieve with the second-man play.

A case in point was Adam Ashley-Cooper's disallowed try for the Waratahs last week. Rob Horne ran a strong line, with the Force expecting another crash ball. The defender had already made the decision to commit to the tackle, while Ashley-Cooper had run a great line to score what should have been a try from a well-worked play. Instead, the referee called it back for obstruction because the defender had thrown his arms up in desperation, shouting: "SIR!"

The purpose of these plays, like anything in attack, is to force the defence to make a decision. This move has to be executed as close to the opposition line as possible if you are going to make the defender commit. That's when it's been done well. But the referees are blowing up the play, ruling obstruction from the attacker running the short line. I think this shows a lack of understanding from the men in the middle.

The onus should be on the referee and his assistants to look at the defender to see what decision he has made. A poor defender will have eyes only for the man coming on a hard line at him. A good attacking ball-player will look at his opponent's eyes before he passes. If he can see the defender looking at the short runner, he plays the ball behind. If the eyes are tracking to the behind runner, he passes short so the attacker can run past the inside shoulder of the defender.

There was a good example of a second-man play in the recent Wests Tigers-Manly game. It was a short ball to Adam Blair from Benji Marshall that fooled the defence – a classic case of the defender being forced to make a choice and taking the wrong option.

Perhaps the referees have to look at the play as it unfolds and assess the decision-making process rather than revert to law 22 subset 4b clause 3, because too often we are seeing good plays go unrewarded because of a lack of understanding by the referees and their assistants.

We have seen in the past couple of years that the scrum is becoming an area in which you have to have completed four-unit maths to work out the complexities of pushing. The area of attack is becoming perhaps, a three-unit study. As we sit in the stands praising the efforts of a team and the sleight of hand in attack, it is so frustrating when it is called back as obstruction.

It is difficult enough to break the defensive line when you sometimes have 12 men lined up across the pitch, to then have a play called back for no reason at all. So let's hand the benefit of the doubt to the attacking team rather than blow the penalty.

8 comments so far

  • Good article. Last week, none of the Fox commentators could explain why the try you mention was not allowed. Rod kafer was bemused to say the least.
    We are in this position because of Clive Woodwards media campaign in 2003 on this subject. He knew that it is very difficult to defend against when done correctly and as Australia was the best at it, it was deemed "illegal" by him and his legion of media and followers (which included the IRB) I admit, there are times where it can be a fine line between that and obstruction which is why refs need to open their eyes and maybe even go to the TMO? but decoy runners are a great part of excellent backline play and its time to move on from what suited Sir Clive

    Date and time
    March 25, 2012, 12:00PM
    • But nothing will change as the Northern Hemisphere sides want to limit what the Southern hemisphere sides can do to score tries. No wonder RL is killing RU in terms of crowds and TV ratings. RU is becoming a real yawn and if it does not improve in the next 5 years they will be too far behind ever to catch up again without major rule changes

      Date and time
      March 25, 2012, 6:32PM
      • Works both ways. Every team will seek rule changes to suit their strengths and hide weaknesses. I recall Australia mounted a similar campaign against the scrummage to overcome its chronic inability tp produce scrummaging forwards. And RL is not killing RU in the NH. Rugby is booming up there, so why should they introduce rule changes to accommodate Australia's fickle fans?

        Hang 10
        Date and time
        March 26, 2012, 1:57AM
    • There is an easy solution to your problem Matt, do what Glenn Jackson did, take up refereeing. Not enough top players do it, It is easier being critical sitting in your arm chair.

      Coach's Comment
      Date and time
      March 26, 2012, 8:05AM
      • Spot on Matt Burke. I was there at the game, and that play unfolded right below our seats. A few minutes before, the Tahs executed an identical move, except Rob Horne got the ball. He got smashed a microsecond later.
        Second time round, Horne wasn't given the ball. The defence line was shuffling across following the play. The defender on Horne then shifted his weight off his outside foot, and again Horne was heavily tackled. Now the point is, the defender chose to tackle Horne, and executed that. Horne in no way was obstructing the defender from drifting onto Ashley-Cooper: it was the defender's decision to tackle Horne. The outside men continued their drift, the ball is popped onto Ashley-Cooper's chest; try.
        There was no obstruction. At all. You could just as easily penalise the defence for taking a man without the ball. Atrocious and technically wrong decision by the referee that cost the Waratahs the victory: seven points were disallowed and they lost by one point.
        This week, the Sharks employed 2,3, or 4 dummy runners in many of their sweeping backline moves. The drifting defence had to step around the dummy runners in order to move onto the ball runner. There was more obstruction there than anything the Waratahs did, but still I wouldn't penalise even that: the defender has to pick who is getting the ball and who isn't. It's a game of skill. Period.

        Date and time
        March 26, 2012, 9:24AM
        • Matt - great article - can SMH get their video editor to do a blog-style 2 minutes comparison of firstly the tahs incident followed by the league play (I can't find the Blair/Marshall play on youtube). Doesn't have to be fancy, just show the two plays. Would be a valuable accoutrement to a great article.

          Date and time
          March 26, 2012, 11:18AM
          • Sorry to rain on the crazy parade, but the call on AAC's nontry was 100% correct. Horne came from his opposite side, crossed in front of him and then took out Sidey (the tackler) in what is known in gridiron as a crackback block. Effectively, you get the ball carrier going one way, and send a blocker 'against the grain' to stop the defender in pursuit. Sidey never ONCE took his eyes off AAC (watch the replay), all this talk of 'bad defensive choices' is just rubbish, and is simply a repeat of what Kearns (incorrectly) said at the time. Even he stopped saying after the replay.

            What's really annoying is that the Rebels' second try on Friday was a result of a similar block (on Wykes this time). but wasn't picked up.

            All this handwringing and crying about refs not allowing you to do what you want is moot - the ref in the Rebels / Force game said it quite clearly to Pocock "you have to be dominant within law' neither of these tries were within law - at least not rugby law.

            Perth via Rakaia
            Date and time
            March 26, 2012, 1:31PM
            • The play was illegal. Does not belong in Rugby. Plainly obstruction. "RU" is only battling in Oz. Go play "RL" & if you like these blocking plays so much convert to Grid Iron.

              Date and time
              March 27, 2012, 3:14AM

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