Bringing back my old "Aw Ref" column, which takes a weekly in-depth look at at controversial or misunderstood refereeing decisions. The week we look at the performance of Bryce Lawrence, who controlled his 100th first class fixture when the Highlanders hosted the Hurricanes, and seemed to be a bit confused about the intention of the new experimental laws.
The 2008 Super 14 is being played under some of the so-called Stellenbosch Laws, developed at the South African university of the same name, which are designed to speed up the game, provide fewer stoppages and lead to more tries. One of the main changes is that all infringements other than offside and foul play now result in free kicks, not penalties, and it was this law which Lawrence seemed to struggle with on Friday night.
The first, and most obvious, incident of the night came when Ma'a Nonu was tackled, regained his feet and was then penalised for not releasing the ball, his obligation when tackled and held. So confusing was this decision that the commentators speculated the penalty was for a different offense.
This decision was wrong on two counts: First, under the new laws failing to release the ball when held is a free kick, not a penalty which it was under the old laws. Secondly, replays and even at full speed showed Nonu clearly was not held and was entitled to get up and continue. Perhaps the error can be put down to old habits dying hard.
However the old habits were clearly hard to break as Lawrence gave another penalty for handling the ball on the ground at a ruck, a free kick offense under the new laws, and incorrectly signaled for penalties rather than free kicks on numerous occasions before getting it right in the end.
The decisions that had me most baffled were penalising props for angling in on their opponents. Law 10.4 (i) covers foul play in scrums and it makes no mention of players angles, it does mention lifting an opponent up or forcing them upwards out of the scrum, but trying to apply that wording to this situation is stretching the definition a little.
A better law to apply here is 20.8 (g) which is concerned with players "twisting or lowering their bodies … that is likely to collapse the scrum." Neither of these laws fits the exact situation, so perhaps there has been some instruction from administrators to penalise this, however a change in the wording would clear up some confusion.
The final contentious decision was a penalty for collapsing the maul, but again the law is unclear. Law 17.2 (e) states: "A player must not intentionally collapse a maul. This is dangerous play." Dangerous, but not foul play according to this law, but the law should not be read in isolation, as law 10.4 (i) clearly defines this as foul play. In this situation Lawrence got it exactly right.
The issue here is not that Lawrence got some decisions wrong, and others which will be endlessly debated by fans, referees and journalists, it is that he obviously does not have the experimental laws clear in his head. For a referee of his experience to be initially signaling incorrectly so often shows that he is operating on autopilot, and that is when referees make the most mistakes.