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So let's talk about referees.
I love referees. I talk to a lot of them are tournaments and after games. They are almost all very smart, love the game, work hard at their craft.
And sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they are bad mistakes and they affect important games in an important way.
This past weekend, referee Tim Luscombe came under some criticism for carding three players on one team.
There is no doubt that his decisions drastically affected the Glendale v Belmont Shore game. But there's no doubt, really, that Luscombe doesn't want his decisions to change the tide of a game that way.
I wanted to look carefully at his decisions (the Pacific Rugby Premiership's commitment to filming every game should be heavily commended here) and discuss them. Why? Because, in the end, I think that had Belmont Shore not been reduced to 12 men, they would have won the game.
Here's the sequence of events:
1. With about 19 minutes to go, Belmont Shore led 25-15. Luscombe blew his whistle to stop play because a maul had stalled. When the whistle went Belmont Shore scrumhalf Rainier Ball tried to free the ball from the clutches of a Glendale player. The Glendale player didn't let go, and Ball raised his knee. Luscombe called Ball over and clearly said that the whistle had gone, this was a dead ball foul, and kneeing a player was "not happening" and gave him a red card.
Now, referees have to deal with this stuff all the time. He was right there, I was not, but the call seemed borderline. I've seen plenty of punches thrown where the ref just tells everyone to calm down and get on with it. It's reasonable to guess that Ball might have thought the call was a penalty to Belmont Shore (at least one Glendale player was offside on the play), and that he was setting up for a quick tap. Luscombe would know this. It's a tough red card, and maybe could have been a yellow, or just a penalty and a warning, but in the end it's a judgment call, and the guy with the whistle is the judge. Luscombe's report cited Ball's action as a kick, and, leading with the knee, yes, it was.
2. Six minutes later, substitute scrumhalf Pete Nifo was penalized for not rolling away. Nifo received a yellow card for this because, pursuant to law 10.3.C, this was a repeated offense. Now, this is true - Luscombe had warned Belmont Shore some time previously about infringing in the rucks ... in the first half. Nifo, however, had been on the field for just a couple of minutes. Is it reasonable to expect all players, including subs, to have heard a warning from the ref? Referees consistently adjudicate with that assumption.
Also, is it reasonable to issue a general warning at 30 minutes and then issue a card for that offense without another warning at 67 minutes? That's a question of judgment, but I wonder if the officiating community might come up with some guidelines here.
Luscombe cited 10.3.c as the reasoning behind his decision. The law entry in the law book specifically states that an individual player should be warned three times, and then should receive a caution. It does not recommend a yellow card.
My other issue with this call is that Luscombe was wrong. Nifo did roll away. He tackled Preston Bryant, landed on top of the Glendale wing as he finished the tackle, was told to roll away, stood up, and was rucked backwards. He got as far away as possible as quickly as possible. Sometimes I think referees think players in the ruck have full control of what happens to them. Regardless, Nifo clearly got away from the tackled player and did so despite two Glendale players on top of him.
So here we have a player who has never been warned about rolling away, who is new to the field, and who actually did everything right (he tried to stand in order to participate in the action, exactly what we want players to do). My opinion here is, it should not have been a penalty, but if you acknowledge that Tim Luscombe knows more about refereeing than I, then accept the penalty, but not the yellow. The yellow card seems unduly harsh here.
3. At 69 minutes gone, the score still stood at 25-15 despite Belmont Shore being down two men. Glendale was right at the Belmont Shore tryline and were penalized for not rolling away. As Glendale prepared to kick for touch, Belmont Shore prop can be seen making a couple of comments. Luscombe immediately yellow cards him for back chat, saying he is "sick of it."
Now, and I echo the TV commentators Dan Power and Brian Vizard here, when you have red-carded a player and yellow-carded another player on the same team, you might expect to hear some grumbling, and as a referee you should probably let it slide. Yellow-carding a player for backchat in that situation seemed to me to be piling on, and unnecessary.
BUT ... at the same time, Referee Luscombe had warned both teams in the first half about backchat. It was an odd warning, coming as it did after he marched off ten meters against Glendale. He then called both captains and Belmont Shore's Peter Dahl and told Dahl to zip it. Overall it seemed Luscombe was cranky. Maybe he didn't like the cold. But when a ref says, pipe down or I am going to card you, do you think making comments to him is going to make the situation better?
(An aside here. If you're telling somebody something definitive, like "not another word out of you," the verbal tick of ending the sentence with "OK?" as in "Not another word out of you, OK?" is kind of self-defeating. Just a public service announcement from us here at RUGBYMag.)
(Aside #2. Glendale would not have been at the Belmont tryline if Belmont Shore had had a scrumhalf on the field. Both scrumhalves for the club had been carded. The whole Glendale attack had started with a tighthead put by the Raptors because flyhalf Mata Iosia doesn't know how to feed the scrum properly.)
This is the top league playing right now, with Belmont Shore playing superbly and winning the game. Luscombe's actions – a red card for a borderline play, a yellow card for a borderline play, and a yellow card for back talk – changed the game. In addition, the IRB Law Book addresses this issue, and says such disputing of the referee's decisions should be penalized. Usually that's an extra ten meters, because someone is complaining about a penalty. It's hard to march off ten meters when you're five meters from the goal line. The Law Book says nothing about a card.
(Addendum. The law 10.3.b DOES speak about team-wide warnings and says a card should be issued if such a warning is not heeded. In that case, had Referee Luscombe later cited 10.3.b, then his actions are more supported. Still, I raise the question - do such team-wide warnings have no expiration time? Probably, they don't. - AG)
Right after Belmont Shore went down to 12 men, Glendale scored on an eightman pick to make it 25-22. Moments later it was 25-29. When Nifo returned they were able to hold on quite admirably with only 13 players, but Shore was done, and right at the end Glendale scored once more.
Would Glendale have won without all the cards? I don't think so. With Shore shorthanded by one player, it was up in the air. With three players on the sidelines, the game was virtually handed to the Raptors.
So I just wonder sometimes. Referees often ask players to take a breath and calm down, and I wonder if the refs need to do that sometimes. In my own admittedly heavily imperfect refereeing experiences, I have gotten caught up in anger at being consistently challenged or ignored.
And is it the referee's job to see the context of the game? I've given a red card already, how about a nice severe warning to the player and captain, saying "you don't want to go down to 13 players, but I will make it happen next time."
Had Luscombe done that for Nifo either the game would have remained a contest and Belmont Shore would have won, or Belmont Shore would have continued to be penalized and dug themselves a hole. Either way, I don't think I'd be writing this article. But also either way, I am still not sure it's the referee's job to count how many cards he has given out.