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Play by Discretion

by Hadyn 08

Rules are rules, except when they're not. What are supposed absolutes in sports are more often ill-defined vagaries and referee discretionary calls.

During the rugby last week Jonathan Kaplan made a number of strange calls including a forward pass (note this is not going to be a discussion about that forward pass). The Dropkicks have had lengthy discussions about forward passes ever since the very flat pass from Ma'a Nonu to Mils Muliaina to score the All Blacks' third try against England in the first test.

Law 12 of the Laws of Rugby (PDF document, 1.7MB) covers the forward pass. Under the law it is called a "throw forward":


A throw forward occurs when a player throws or passes the ball forward. "Forward" means towards the opposing team's dead ball line.


Bounce forward. If the ball is not thrown forward but it hits a player or the ground and bounces forward, this is not a throw forward.

After arguing for a while, both on- and off-line we decided that the referee's relative frame of reference was the main decider in determining whether or not a pass is thrown forward. This training video found by Sideline Mike encourages referees in Australia to ignore the official idea of the rule and instead go with their relative observation. This goes against rulings, such as the one that reversed Sitiveni Sivivatu's try in last Saturday's game, called by the stationary touch judge. The touch judge's frame of reference was static (i.e. the motion of the ball relative to the ground) while the referee was running with the players (i.e. the motion of the ball relative to the position of the players). What is forward to one is flat or even backwards to the other.

Talking about this at length can alter your perceptions of reality and cause a serious headache (luckily I did physics, infinite set theory and sub-structural logic). Thank goodness the rest of the rules of rugby are clear-cut and simple to interpret.

For example when Kaplan gave a short-arm penalty to the English because the scrum was "moving across the field" that was because … um …

Actually there is no rule for that. So once again the referee's discretion is what made the call.

Then in this week's cricket we saw something very strange with rules. Grant Elliot collided with (the awesomely named) Ryan Sidebottom. Elliot was injured and unable to make it back to his crease in time and was run-out. The rules were precisely interpreted by the umpires and Elliot was ruled out. However, the gentlemanly rules of cricket (Law 27) say:

8. Withdrawal of an appeal

The captain of the fielding side may withdraw an appeal only with the consent of the umpire within whose jurisdiction the appeal falls and before the outgoing batsman has left the field of play. If such consent is given the umpire concerned shall, if applicable, revoke his decision and recall the batsman.

So when English captain Paul Collingwood did not withdraw the appeal the New Zealand camp was furious. But what could they do, those were the rules. Well they got really pissed off is what they did. Daniel Vettori apologised and made peace with Collingwood but said later that his reaction would've been radically different had they lost.

Should Collingwood have instigated section 8 of Law 27? In this case the umpires could make a clear ruling (as opposed to lbws) but the captain made a discretionary call. I'll let you all discuss the demise of gentlemanly play in the comments.

Where does the TAB stand on these issues? These days there are the large amounts of money riding on these games, both from the gambling public and from the sports bodies themselves. So what do sports organisations do in reaction to these issues?

Sometimes the answer is high-tech. In rugby and cricket (and other sports) we now have the TMO (television match official) - an extra referee who can watch footage of the play to better determine what has just happened (although this is not entirely infallible). Major League Baseball debates every year about whether or not they should introduce a system like this.

Some sports, such as tennis, use technology to accurately place a ball in space and time to stop all of those "are you blind ref?" calls.

Others make their rules extremely explicit. The American National Football League (NFL) has one of the most intricate rulebooks I've ever read. But what I really like is the way the officials have to make a clear signal with their hands and tell the crowd explicitly what happened over the loud speakers. Even if that call is "giving them the business"

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