Will TV commentators ever bother to learn the Laws of Rugby and give accurate information to the public?
Will TV commentators ever broadcast a game without revealing all too clearly which team they support?
Their influence is enormous, with the masses of viewers believing the commentators are experts on the game and on the Laws and accepting as gospel their pronouncements on the Laws and the accuracy or otherwise of referees’ decisions. Their bias favouring one team carries great influence with the public too.
In the modern game, players have taken the standards of previous eras to new highs in conditioning and analysis and strategy and skill – with the advantage of being full-time professionals as opposed to the old eras’ amateur players, and the multiple benefits from advancement in sports science.
So too the quality of coaching, the onus on the head coach to get selections right, and – to keep one’s job – the essential skill of strong but sensitive man-management.
The top referees are professional too, and while there is a need to keep evolving the Laws and to investigate whether two referees would make for more accuracy in decision-making than one (a subject for separate discussion), the assessment and review and appointments of referees benefit from the modern era of professionalism.
The TV filming of games, the technology, and the technical expertise of cameramen and production teams – other than in countries where filming rugby matches is not a regular, often practised exercise – have all improved too.
What hasn’t improved – with the rare exception of a few isolated individuals – is the information and balance provided by TV commentators.
During Super Rugby and then the Rugby Championship we yet again suffered through New Zealand commentators seeing games through NZ eyes, Australian commentators favouring the Aussie teams, and South African commentators being biased towards the SA teams. And any illusion that in November we’d be offered better knowledge of the Laws and less biased commentary by northern hemisphere commentators, has been quickly dispelled. In the north as in the south, a balanced view is sadly lacking; it is clearly ‘our team’ vs the visitors.
Common practice, yes – but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
What they certainly could do as a start, is to study the Laws of the game, and study the IRB’s rulings on specific issues raised by member nations, and to be au fait with instructions and guidelines to match officials.
There is an old saying in rugby that referees get criticised more when they are right than when they are wrong, and all too often commentators are guilty of that. It is not unusual for them to miss errors on the Law while criticizing referees when they are blowing accurately.
Let’s be constructive and give commentators 10 specific suggestions with which to start:
(1) Get the terminology right. In rugby we have Laws not Rules. This is not insignificant or pedantic; you are educating the public. We have penalties and free kicks; there is no such thing as a ‘short-arm penalty’.
(2) Stop talking about ‘control’ when you are discussing whether a try has been scored. The Laws make no mention of ‘control’ and do not require ‘control’. It is more accurate to talk in terms of the Laws.
(3) Stop talking about ‘downward pressure’ when you are discussing whether a try has been scored. Please note that Law 22.1 (a) states: “No downward pressure is required.” It is more accurate to talk in terms of the Laws.
(4) Stop talking about a ‘double movement’ when you are discussing whether a try has been scored. The Laws make no mention of ‘double movement’. It is more accurate to talk in terms of the Laws.
(5) Study the Laws as regards touch and touch-in-goal and especially the relevance of the plane of the touchline, the grounding of the ball by a defending player when the ball is bouncing towards the goal line or dead ball line, and the Law on whether a five-metre scrum or 22 or scrum back where the player kicked the ball, should be ordered. Learn the significance of the ball being inside or outside the plane of the touchline, and the decisive position of where the player trying to keep the ball in play by jumping near the touchline to keep it alive, lands after playing the ball. It’s not straight-forward, and commentators seldom get it right – or they opt out of comment because they don’t know the relevant Laws.
(6) Study the TMO protocols. The detail can vary from competition to competition and you need to be meticulous in providing viewers with accurate information on the role the TMO is allowed to play.
(7) Ensure that you give correct information on when a scrum should be awarded to the team whose player caught the ball directly from an opponent’s kick (except from a kick-off or drop-out). It’s only when a maul is formed – immediately – and the maul remains stationary, stops moving forward for longer than five seconds, or if the ball becomes unplayable. Just a maul, not a tackle, not a ruck, not when the catcher continues to play before the maul is formed.
(8) Know the correct mark for a penalty to be awarded, especially when the correct mark may not be closer to the touchline than 15m or when the referee is required to offer an option.
(9) A penalty try is awarded when the defending team’s foul play prevents a try which PROBABLY would otherwise have been scored. Not possibly. Not definitely. Probably.
(10) How often do referees get criticised when they award a penalty try and then give a yellow card to the defender whose foul play prevented the probable try? Commentators moan about a ‘double punishment’ for the offending team. Please note that the Laws require the referee to issue that yellow card to the penalty try offender. The Law says MUST.
The endeavour of TV commentators should be to provide balanced, not biased, commentary and to be accurate, not uninformed, on the Laws.
By Len Kaplan