Friday, 19 October 2007

Rugby is a game for hooligans...

... played by gentlemen. Football is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans.

I’m not convinced how true that is, but since the rugby world cup is on at the moment, I thought we could get the ball rolling (if you’ll excuse what barely qualifies as a pun) by looking at what features of rugby could or could not be introduced to benefit other sports. And by “other sports” I, of course, mean “football”. I’m not claiming any of the ideas as my own, merely suggesting my take on the possibilities. The issues are on the whole concerned with the rules of the game and their application. Here they are:

1. The Video Referee

More correctly known as the television match official (TMO), this idea has been mooted many a time. While it still has its critics in rugby, it is generally accepted that getting the correct decision is worth the wait and, usually slight, disruption to play. The prospect of this being introduced to football is far from popular, and in any case it would not work. The interpretation of whether something is a foul or not can change drastically when the incident is viewed in slow motion; for example, what looks like only minimal contact between two players can easily lead the recipient of the challenge to fall if he is running at pace, and only in the most clear-cut cases can it easily be decided whether a tackle was foul or fair. This week, UEFA president, Michel Platini has been outspoken against the use of a video referee in football matches.

In rugby, the TMO is generally only used to decide if a try should be awarded or not. This will be a more clear-cut decision. A parallel in football would be incidents where it is unclear whether the ball has crossed the goal line or not. This can be better dealt with by Hawk-Eye technology, as used effectively in cricket and tennis. A trial is being conducted this season at Reading FC’s academy matches. I would be willing to bet that this will be inconclusive, as it is more than possible that there will not be a single incident of the type in question all season.

For outfield incidents, a better solution could be an equivalent to the Citing Commission.

2. The Citing Commission

This involves a panel of officials who watch each game and can retrospectively punish (or acquit) players for acts missed by the match officials or that they feel have been dealt with inappropriately. In the world cup there have been several high-profile cases, including the suspension of England’s captain, Phil Vickery, for a trip which the referee did not see, and the USA’s Paul Emerick receiving a five week ban for a “spear” tackle, for which he was initially given just a yellow card.

I can see no reason not to use this system, unless it becomes a question of resources, in terms of money and manpower, which it should not at the top level. Its one weakness is that the team which is wronged during the match does not gain any advantage from the later punishment. In football, retrospective action only seems to be taken in exceptional incidents or where a specific complaint is made. If every match was being observed and proper punishments handed out, players might be less likely to cheat.

3. The Ten-Yard Rule

In rugby, if a penalty or free-kick is awarded and the punished team shows any dissent to the referee, the position from which the kick is to be taken can be moved forward by ten metres. This has already been experimented with, unsuccessfully, in football. It is an effective rule in rugby, but in rugby territorial advantage is more important than it is in football. Moreover, with free kicks around the penalty area, it can actually be a disadvantage to have the ball too close to the goals. A better solution could come from hockey, where if players show dissent to the referee the captain of their team can be shown a yellow card. This would undoubtedly be unpopular, but if it was used for a while, players would stop arguing pretty quickly.

4. The Sin-Bin

I don’t particularly like this rule in rugby. It has been used to replace penalty tries in many cases where they would previously been awarded, and can also lead to a single player being punished for the cumulative offences of his team. In fact, this could be useful in instances in football where so-called “smart” teams effectively take it in turns to commit fouls, knowing that they will not be booked for persistent fouling. However, I think the current system of yellow and red cards works fairly well.

5. Timekeeping

In rugby, the clock is stopped any time there is a reasonably sized interruption to play, such as an injury, a try, or a mass brawl involving all 30 players, but not stopped every time the ball goes out of play, as in American football or basketball. This means that at the end of each half there is no stoppage time, but as soon as the clock reaches 40 or 80 minutes, play stops the next time the ball goes dead (unless a penalty is awarded). Football’s current system is for the fourth official to indicate the number of minutes of stoppage time to be played. I can see no reasons to prefer one method to the other, so there’s no need to change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and all that.

So, to sum up: video referee, no; sightings commission, yes; ten yard rule, no; sin-bin, no; clock stopping, no. It seems there is little for football to gain here. The fact is that there is nothing wrong with the rules of football; it is just that they are at times poorly applied by the officials and that players will do anything they can to bend them as much as possible.

So there you have it. Agree, disagree, and add your own suggestions.

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