The issues which face new RLIF chief David Collier are many and myriad, but one particular matter should be of utmost priority to the former England and Wales Cricket Board man.
The lack of consistency in rules and refereeing across the world of rugby league is an outright embarrassment, and needs to remedied as soon as possible.
Scanning a book written in 1981 recently called simply ‘Rugby’, I came across the following paragraph:
“Rugby league has been notorious for changing the rules of the game, to such an extent that each country had a large number of local laws, and one set which were applied to international matches. When this reached an almost farcical level it was decided at the International Board meeting that one set of international rules would be confirmed for use by each individual country and this unilaterally accepted rule book was introduced into Britain at the start of the 1981-82 season.” (David Howes)
(That book featured both codes of rugby, and was given away free to people who could prove that they had smoked a huge number of Hamlet cigars, which should give an indication of its age, and how far removed it is from today’s largely smoke-free society.)
There have been some incidents in Super League recently which seemed egregiously erroneous, such as Phil Bentham’s recent controversial judgement about play-the-balls and ‘held’ calls in Perpignan.
But is it any wonder that referees seem to struggle when there are no internationally agreed rules in place?
We even have the game’s flagship domestic league, the NRL, using two referees while everywhere else uses one.
It’s also worth recalling some events which occurred at the World Cup in France in 1972 (the one that Great Britain won). Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson recalled playing the first group game of that tournament against the Kangaroos, and beating them, partly thanks to a controversial refereeing decision.
John Atkinson scored the try in the corner, before being felled by Australian John Elford, who stiff-armed Atkinson into the crowd as he was celebrating his try. A brawl broke out, before Terry Clawson converted the try. But the Australians were prevented from kicking off straight away.
As ‘Stevo’ tells it:
“Aussie skipper Graeme Langlands brought the ball back for the kick-off, placed the ball on the spot and stepped back. Every time he attempted the kick-off, the French referee, Claude Tissiere, stood over the ball and pushed him away. Langlands obviously hadn’t learnt French at school either and screamed at the official to get out of the way so he could restart the match. The air was blue. After a few minutes both sides gathered at the kick-off spot to try and work out the problem.
“Terry Clawson approached Clive Sullivan and suggested, ‘I think he’s giving us a penalty.’
“To everyone’s amazement, the referee nodded his head and started to push the Australians back to the 10 yards line. Great Britain was awarded a penalty.
“Referee Tissiere had just created the seven point try! It took 18 months before the rule was officially brought into the game.”
That happened 43 years ago. So long ago, in fact, that Great Britain actually won that World Cup. So, nearly half a century ago, rugby league was still not entirely sure just which, or whose, rules we were actually playing by.
Our international game is blighted by having no neutral refs in key test matches. It looks silly and anachronistic to not have them, and fans of other sports laugh disbelievingly when they are told it happens.
And yet the NRL is more bothered about which colour shirts the officials wear, recently deciding that pink was a colour which lessened officials’ authority out on the park.
Much of the abuse heaped on rugby league match officials currently is a sign of general frustration with the sport, and most of it is ignorant and misplaced.
At root, though, is a serious issue of credibility. Our match officials have their credibility undermined at every turn by the sport’s various, often competing, hierachies’ attitudes to rules and consistency.
It would be hard to imagine FIFA allowing different countries to have different rules, and to alter them whenever dominant countries felt it was appropriate. Germany don’t play different rules to Brazil or Italy or England in the round-ball game.
In fact, it would be hard to find another sport which has such a primitive, unsophisticated and amateurish approach to the laws of its own game.
It recalls the mid-19th century advent of ‘football’, when each city in England had its own rules, which the visiting team would adopt for a game.
If we are to have a proper international calendar,then we need an internationally sanctioned, universally accepted and adopted book of rules.
We also need proper RLIF sanctioned teams of match officials from each test-playing nation.
Work particularly needs to be done in France, Wales and New Zealand, as it is from countries such as this that the bulk of new and neutral referees that the international game needs will be provided.
If the cupboard looks sparsely populated in terms of numbers of potential referees, then it is time that someone stuck their hands in their pockets and funded some development work, and quickly.
It will also be interesting to see who is appointed as referee for this year’s test series between England and New Zealand.
Hopefully, for what should be something of a showpiece occasion for rugby league, it will be someone who is both neutral and competent.