Ice rugby wrestling? Refs have become stage managers instead of officiators as game heads towards reality TV territory

The opening Bledisloe Cup game was a tipping point in terms of how frequently the referee is the center point of fan dialogue and analysis.

Over-officiated games are such the norm now is it worth the emotional investment?

This is not going an individual referee incident gripe, but rather a look at what has actually changed in the game in the context of an op ed written in the NY Times about professional wrestling – aa theater “sport”.

With each argued bad call there is often the “letter of the law fan” and then the “hypocrisy” fan that has all the screen shots that show inconsistency. Then you have the salt emoji fans, who would be happy if the Bledisloe were retained through rain cancellation as long as bragging rights were confirmed. And it is tiresome.

Rugby does not suit this era of technology and head protection hindsight. This game is a scrap with many laws and seems to have difficulty admitting that perfection from players is beyond impossible. But where would that leave the game? So instead, we have 20 plus penalties a game and the same tired quotes about it being the fault of player discipline.

In 2016, New York Times writer Jeremy Gordon wrote an article called “Is Everything Wrestling?”

“The charms of professional wrestling — half Shakespeare, half steel-chair shots — may never be universally understood. Every adult fan of the sport has encountered those skeptics who cock their heads and ask, “You do know it’s fake, right?,” he wrote.

Referee Mathieu Raynal speaks to Nic White and Bernard Foley of the Wallabies during The Rugby Championship & Bledisloe Cup match between the Australia Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at Marvel Stadium on September 15, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“Well, sure, but that hasn’t stopped pro wrestling from inching closer and closer to the respectable mainstream. Last year, World Wrestling Entertainment announced a partnership with ESPN, leading to straight-faced wrestling coverage on “SportsCenter.” The biggest action star in the world, Dwayne Johnson, known as the Rock, got his start as an eyebrow-waggling wrestler.

“This is partly because the rest of the world has caught up to wrestling’s ethos. With each passing year, more and more facets of popular culture become something like wrestling: a stage-managed “reality” in which scripted stories bleed freely into real events, with the blurry line between truth and untruth seeming to heighten, not lessen, the audience’s addiction to the melodrama. The modern media landscape is littered with “reality” shows that audiences happily accept aren’t actually real; that, in essence, is wrestling.”

I don’t think rugby is entering the arena of reality TV just yet but there is some troubling consistency with games that referees are becoming more “stage managers” than refs.

I will go through the final minute time delay from the Bledisloe game as I think there was an earlier moment in the game that adds weight.

Darcy Swain’s attack on the leg of Quinn Tupaea was gruesome and probably the closest thing to blatant foul play with intent to injure I have seen in a long time. There seems to be weighing up the game so far by refs when handing out cards. This is not reffing, this is stage management.

Then there are cards that seem to balance out previous bad calls that have caught up with the ref production team, such as Jake Gordon’s collapsing of the maul.

And I’m sure All Black fans will never forget Romain saying in the final Lions game “We have a deal…”.

The referees create stories that bleed into real events (the game) by choosing when to enact a law. This what leads to the post-game fan analysis of inconsistencies that is happening quite often. This doesn’t feel like the sport I know nor does it feel like sport.

This is driven by technology, fan focus on inconsistencies and over thinking by administrators who feel backed into a corner by these things (no tin foil hats here). Also, the level of perfection required by players is not possible. I’m sure refs are as confused as what to do as the players.

The biggest example of stage management in the Bledisloe came in the final minute. Throughout the game you had the standard slow penalty kicks, huddles before lineouts, injuries at scrum time and scrum resets.

In a strange 39 seconds that saw Nic White holding the ball discussing scrum or kick, time off by the ref, time back on that Foley claims to have not heard and then a blow up by the number ten: “time was off!”.

A lot of people say they have never seen this before. One area they have never seen this before was in the previous 79 minutes of the game.

This is fodder for the “letter of the law fans” vs the “hypocrisy” fans.

Raynal’s last minute fever over quick ball seemed to be missing for quite a bit of the game. So if it is a law driving him, why was it so paramount in only the last minute? That is not reffing, that is stage management. And the few light times he said something through the game to do not constitute taking control nor do they justify the sudden final minute escalation.

No other player at penalty time copped the amount of direction from the ref during the game: play, time off, play, play. The ref wanted that ball in play for the last minute as quickly as possible, but was not too bothered during the rest of the match. Stage management. If it’s about laws, then the laws are the same throughout the game – aren’t they?

This is the contradiction that drives rugby fans’ food. After every match they get gas lit about the game and the laws and are drowned out and bullied by the salty emoji fans.

Rugby is not scripted like wrestling but interpretations of these laws mean referees can be like an improv theater coach yelling out “now your clumsy store clerk who keeps breaking things”. Who knows which way they will direct you next. But they are backed into this corner by technology and post-game analysis.

For me, rugby eventually needs to admit it has a lot of harsh penalties for things that seem frequent and unavoidable.

Currently, there is a system where the heavy sanctions are around head protection and foul play, accidental versions of the same thing and then full arm penalties. Then a whole bunch of rabbits that get pulled out of the hat from time to time.

The protocols for head contact are meant to equal objectivity for the ref but technology means we are seeing everything in slow motion.

This combined with ruck infringements and offsides, we are seeing 20+ full arm penalties in many games and many cards.

With the amount of data now, rugby should know what infringements seem to be unavoidable due to the speed and nature of the modern game.

If speeding up the game is actually something that the administrators want, having sanctions that are developed through acknowledging the unavoidable frequency of the action with faster penalty options might be something more suitable to an enjoyable game.

Rugby league acknowledged this with the six-again rule as too many dummy half plays were delayed through the penalty kick – which is what the out of breath offending team wanted.

It’s tough to change a traditional game and have fans give you the thumbs up. But I would enjoy common infringements being calculated as team fouls like in basketball that equal a chance at points if they build to a certain point. If the ball is still playable, play it.

An immediate full arm penalty for everything in rugby is killing the speed and enjoyment of the game. The TMO is killing the speed and enjoyment of the game.

Things will still be missed but at least the difference between missing things and not won’t be certain points or a set piece near the try line that leaves fans going off.

Lowering the harshness of the sanction for common things would lower the spotlight on refs who seem to be stressed into creating the right balancing act each game which equals stage management not officiating.

Fans who like the technical aspect of the game would hate this idea as they like to think rugby is like chess and you’re a troglodyte who has a team that just can’t adapt to it. Except the rules/laws of chess can’t be “interpreted”.

Then occasionally there is a game that bucks the trend and purist go “nothing to see here”.

Rugby is a game where people talk about its values. Well, the very nature of sport requires it to be a fair competition. Interpretation of the laws and inconsistencies are leaving fans after each game going “that’s not fair”.

No decider at Eden Park, just screen shots and salty emojis.

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