Toland v Owens

Liam Toland versus Nigel Owens: Subjectivity in the Sport of Rugby

While the All Blacks finished the three-test series against the touring Irish in definitive fashion in Hamilton, it is the fallout from the second test in Christchurch which generated some real talking points, particularly in the UK.

Former Leinster captain and Irish Times columnist Liam Toland kicked off the furore with his criticism of referee Nigel Owens, who oversaw the nail-biting clash in Christchurch, receiving an almost immediate retort from Owens himself, venting to his followers on Twitter.

Toland’s analysis of the game and a number of specific refereeing decisions, and Owens’ polar-opposite opinion highlighted to me the human element of the game – the fact that laws are open to interpretation, and that our own opinions of decisions and results are often clouded by our individual viewing points.

For years Kiwi rugby fans have fumed as players, media and supporters of just about every other rugby playing nation have accused Richie McCaw of cheating. To me, Richie McCaw is the most scrutinized player in world rugby, not only by the media, but also by match officials. And, at the end of the day, to label him a cheat is ridiculous – it’s not his responsibility to monitor and uphold the laws of the game – that’s what the referee is there for. Cheating in my book would be sneaking a 16th player on the field, or even faking a bloodbin injury (!); pushing the boundaries of what you can get away with until the moment a referee penalises you is just smart in my books.

But that’s my perspective as a very passionate, one-eyed All Blacks supporter!
I disagree with much of what Toland had to say about Owens’ performance in Christchurch – but I get it.

I’m sure many, if not all of us, as rugby fans, have personal experiences we can call on when considering this. This time three years ago the amateur club team I fervently support in New Zealand was 30 games in to a 40 match unbeaten streak. And I remember thinking at the time that the referees seem so much better when you find yourself on the winning side of the scoreboard. I recall realising that, when it past years I had bemoaned the decisions of officials on a regular basis, I was now, in the midst of an historic winning streak, more than content with the job those same officials were doing. In reality, it wasn’t that they were any better or worse, but our boys were playing so well that the referee’s calls were having very little effect on us winning games. For our opposition over those two years though, I know things must have felt very different.

Now we’re at the opposite end of the table, and four games in to the season I had to take a good long look at myself. Standing on the side-lines berating touch judges and referees I realised I had become the embodiment of the teams and their supporters that we had mercilessly crushed just a couple of seasons ago, looking for excuses wherever I could and blaming anyone in sight for my side’s inability to win.

But, no matter how much I self-analyse, I don’t actually think I was completely wrong or short-sighted in either scenario. I think we probably did get the ‘rub of the green’ during our winning streak, and I think we probably do lose out on the 50-50 decisions at the moment.

When you’re losing, frustrations increase, and discipline slips, Even if these are just momentary lapses in judgement the human element comes in to play again, and it is only natural that, even if it is subconsciously, a referee forms an opinion and pigeon-holes a certain player or teams. When you’re winning on the otherhand, there’s less backchat, the talk is positive, the heads are held high, and you find yourself getting on ‘like a house on fire’ with the match officials.

It’s a well-known fact in boxing that to take the title off the reigning champ you have to definitively beat them. The perception is that they’ve done enough to prove themselves in the past, so to be worthy of wresting the belt from their grasp a challenger needs to go above and beyond to get a result.

Similar things happen all over the sporting world. The All Blacks, as World Champions, are undoubtedly the dominant force in international rugby, and its reasonable, if not fair, that a referee will have a preconceived idea that the All Blacks will likely dominate scrums, infringe less at the breakdown, and, in general, play to the letter of the law – their ability to play quality football should, in theory, negate the need to operate outside the laws of the game. Take an area like the scrum, one of the most technical aspects of the game, and the hardest to rule upon. It’s understandable that a ref, if a little undecided about which player may have pulled a scrum down or lost his bind first, would rule in favour of a player like Owen Franks – why would a player of his calibre need to break the rules?

I’m not saying this is right. I’m just saying that it’s probably a reality.
On the other hand, the team with the lesser reputation, or the underdog, must surely be more inclined to push the boundaries on what is legal and what is not, to give themselves any advantage they can, and the best opportunity to cause an upset.

The Irish played out of their skins on the second test, and were openly and bitterly disappointed to miss the draw, or even that elusive win they so crave. And maybe the 50/50 calls did fall against them on the day.

Inevitably human error will occur, and match officials are bound to miss things – from there it becomes an issue for those watching – do you personalise those refereeing decisions and blame bias and favouritism on the part of the officials, or do you accept the fact that over the course of most matches or tours these things have a way of evening themselves out?

I wish I had a more definitive stand-point myself. I’ve been on both sides, at varying levels of the game – as an All Blacks fan and a supporter of a winning club I’ve tended to gloss over the performances of match officials, content that my side had triumphed. On other occasions, as a distraught club man I’ve screamed bloody murder as my team was denied victory due to inept refereeing!

The reality is there is probably a little bit of everything going on – a bit of bias (albeit probably unconscious) by the referees towards teams which are traditionally strong, the losing side bringing some of it on themselves by pushing just a little too hard, and an understandable inability on the behalf of the viewer to be truly impartial.

It’s great to be passionate and consumed by rugby – it’s why we love the game, and it’s why it polarises opinions and generates such huge emotional swings. Would you have it any other way?


  1. Mike July 5, 2012

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