New Zealand Rugby national referees manager Bryce Lawrence has admitted that there are a few areas where referees must improve after the first two weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa – a worry that was also raised by All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
The penalty count remained high over the weekend as referees and players continue to adapt to the new interpretation of the laws of the game, which has made for a less entertaining and less fluid brand of rugby during a time when the world is watching.
Speaking to Sky Sport’s The Breakdown, Lawrence said the stricter enforcement of the laws – as opposed to new laws, a distinction he stressed – has started well but there are areas that still are “a work in progress”.
“It’s been a good start,” he said. “We’re seeing changes week to week. Some positives that we’ve seen are that in week one the average penalty count was 30 and in week two that was down to 25.
“We’re getting some really good movement and player buy-in for things like offside line and space. So we’re actually starting to see some really good attack. We saw that on Sunday with the Crusaders and Hurricanes moving the ball really nicely over multiple phases.
“We’re cleaning some of the areas up that we’ve been asked to do like side entry and sealing off and things. There are still a couple of areas that are a work in progress.”
Lawrence said the new policing of the rules was a directive passed down by World Rugby.
“It’s really been led by World Rugby but also the leading international coaches in the world – Ian Foster, Eddie Jones, Joe Schmidt, those type of guys. They’re the ones that are driving it and World Rugby have listened to the coaches and the players, and have asked the referees to try and referee to the laws that currently exist.
“So it’s no new law, they’re just asking referees to referee the laws that are already there rather than go out and create all these new laws which I don’t think any of us wanted.”
However, changing the way referees officiate hasn’t been an easy task in what is already an extremely difficult and complicated job.
Lawrence said the referees are constantly reviewing and working on correcting their mistakes, which was helped by a meeting earlier in the week with Foster who expressed concern over several refereeing incidents.
“Some of it has been really successful so far. Some of it, players are taking a little while to adjust and the referees are taking a little more while to adjust. But we’re constantly talking with coaches in our review meeting during the week.
“We had Ian Foster on for half an hour talking to the refs over a range of clips where he didn’t think we were getting it quite right. What the real positive for me was the clips that he identified were exactly the clips that as a referee group we had identified. So it’s working well.”
The referees have also had input from some of the top players in the country.
“Talking to some of the leading players – Sam Cane and James Lentjes and all that – they’re really positive of what World Rugby is trying to do. And they’re just saying it’s going to take a little bit of time for players and referees to adjust.
“We’re putting our hand up and saying there’s a couple of areas that we’re not quite getting right at the moment.”
He said there are two technical areas at the breakdown that referees need to work on, both of which have negatively impacted the attacking team and stopped the flow of the game.
“I think we’ll be better this week, we’ll be better the week after, and once we get those pictures right, we’re going to see more attack and I think a better flow. I’m realistic to know that it takes a little bit of time … we’re close but we’re not at our best at the moment.
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“I think we might see a slightly different game – a bit more attack. Look, the refs want that just as much as you do.”
Lawrence also admitted referee Ben O’Keeffe wrongly ruled a penalty against the Blues during their win over the Chiefs, which resulted in a Dalton Papalii yellow card after he was judged to have illegally stolen the ball in the ruck. He clarified that the mistake came because of an illegal use of the “squeeze ball” by the Chiefs – where the ball is placed between the legs of the ball carrier while kneeling on the ground facing the opposition.
“We believe our decision was wrong … we believe he should’ve been rewarded either with the penalty or if not the penalty let him then go forward and then pick it up the second time.
“We had a long discussion about that clip. We’re having to work out what the ‘squeeze ball’ means again because it hasn’t been in play for a couple of years. But all the teams are using it to protect the ball. We had a great discussion and then Fozzie (Foster) came in with exactly that clip and reconfirmed our thinking.”
However, there is one area of the game that referees are going to continue to be strict on: the offside line.
Lawrence said the strict ruling of offsides will continue to allow more space in the game, which he says has led to an improvement from 12 offside penalties in the first week to seven penalties in the second.
“Referees are still going hard on that area and we’re going to stick to that because space is vital. But teams are self-policing better.”
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