The Knock-on Effect

The interpretation around what a player is trying to do when attempting to intercept a pass needs closer inspection.

Campbell Burnes contends that the ruling putting players in the bin for apparent deliberate knock-downs needs binning.

Rugby has worked hard to make the game safer and more enjoyable.

It is certainly safer, though at the top level the collisions are still shuddering and violent. The rules are tighter and the referees have rightly come down hard on those who tackle too high. But there are still several grey areas, such as the breakdown, the scrum and what rights players have when genuinely contesting the ball in the air.

What about the vexed area of deliberate knock-downs? As far as I can make out, this was not a blight on the game, per se, in the manner of collapsed scrums or free-for-alls at the breakdown. And yet the match officials have, for some reason, over the last few years, got very heavy on this. Maybe we should canvass the opinion of expert poachers such as former Springboks skipper Jean de Villiers and the world’s best player Beauden Barrett.

So what we are seeing is often very arbitrary calls made by the referee, or his ARs, or even the TMO, over what they think the player is attempting to do when intercepting a pass. The clear knock-down should be straightforward enough to the naked eye, or even after recourse to the TMO. Bad luck, all you club players and refs. The latter will have to make a split-second decision on that. Best you err on the side of caution before waving yellow cards about.

But the contentious call is always 50-50, because how do you measure intent? When is a player cynically trying to stymie a movement and when is he making a bonafide attempt to intercept the ball?

Top Australian whistler Angus Gardner, on Fox Sports’ Kick and Chase show, gave this explanation for an intentional knock-on or knock-down ruling: “A player not being in a realistic position to regather the ball from an intercept opportunity.”

Two cases in point from May Super Rugby matches: Aaron Smith, for the Highlanders against the Waratahs, and Taqele Naiyaravoro for the Waratahs against the Crusaders, were correctly penalised for deliberately knocking the ball down. Both were also yellow carded, which is a step too far, and is doing little to deter players from the act. Why ruin a spectacle for a scenario that is not foul play and is highly subjective when measuring intent?

The other notable example came in the Hurricanes v Reds encounter, when Peter Umaga-Jensen attempted to intercept a Reds pass. Referee Ben O’Keeffe was about to yellow card him for what he deemed to be an infraction. Canes halfback TJ Perenara, the only man in rugby history to twice persuade the referee to change his decision, forced O’Keeffe’s hand to check the replay. Upon doing so, O’Keeffe saw that Reds wing Filipo Daugunu was holding Umaga-Jensen back. Clear penalty, Hurricanes, right? Alas, O’Keeffe ruled a scrum… incorrect.

Gardner says the intercept is a high risk, high reward play. He’s right. So let’s not drum it out of the game by over-zealous officiating.