Goff on Rugby

Written by Alex Goff    Tuesday, 25 March 2014 12:05    PDF Print Write e-mail
GoffonRugby: When Referees Affect the Outcome
Columns - Goff on Rugby

So let's talk about referees.

I love referees. I talk to a lot of them are tournaments and after games. They are almost all very smart, love the game, work hard at their craft.

GoffonRugby is a Column by Alex GoffAnd sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they are bad mistakes and they affect important games in an important way.

This past weekend, referee Tim Luscombe came under some criticism for carding three players on one team.

There is no doubt that his decisions drastically affected the Glendale v Belmont Shore game. But there's no doubt, really, that Luscombe doesn't want his decisions to change the tide of a game that way.

I wanted to look carefully at his decisions (the Pacific Rugby Premiership's commitment to filming every game should be heavily commended here) and discuss them. Why? Because, in the end, I think that had Belmont Shore not been reduced to 12 men, they would have won the game.

Here's the sequence of events:
1. With about 19 minutes to go, Belmont Shore led 25-15. Luscombe blew his whistle to stop play because a maul had stalled. When the whistle went Belmont Shore scrumhalf Rainier Ball tried to free the ball from the clutches of a Glendale player. The Glendale player didn't let go, and Ball raised his knee. Luscombe called Ball over and clearly said that the whistle had gone, this was a dead ball foul, and kneeing a player was "not happening" and gave him a red card.

Now, referees have to deal with this stuff all the time. He was right there, I was not, but the call seemed borderline. I've seen plenty of punches thrown where the ref just tells everyone to calm down and get on with it. It's reasonable to guess that Ball might have thought the call was a penalty to Belmont Shore (at least one Glendale player was offside on the play), and that he was setting up for a quick tap. Luscombe would know this. It's a tough red card, and maybe could have been a yellow, or just a penalty and a warning, but in the end it's a judgment call, and the guy with the whistle is the judge. Luscombe's report cited Ball's action as a kick, and, leading with the knee, yes, it was.

2. Six minutes later, substitute scrumhalf Pete Nifo was penalized for not rolling away. Nifo received a yellow card for this because, pursuant to law 10.3.C, this was a repeated offense. Now, this is true - Luscombe had warned Belmont Shore some time previously about infringing in the rucks ... in the first half. Nifo, however, had been on the field for just a couple of minutes. Is it reasonable to expect all players, including subs, to have heard a warning from the ref? Referees consistently adjudicate with that assumption.

Also, is it reasonable to issue a general warning at 30 minutes and then issue a card for that offense without another warning at 67 minutes? That's a question of judgment, but I wonder if the officiating community might come up with some guidelines here.

Luscombe cited 10.3.c as the reasoning behind his decision. The law entry in the law book specifically states that an individual player should be warned three times, and then should receive a caution. It does not recommend a yellow card.

My other issue with this call is that Luscombe was wrong. Nifo did roll away. He tackled Preston Bryant, landed on top of the Glendale wing as he finished the tackle, was told to roll away, stood up, and was rucked backwards. He got as far away as possible as quickly as possible. Sometimes I think referees think players in the ruck have full control of what happens to them. Regardless, Nifo clearly got away from the tackled player and did so despite two Glendale players on top of him.

So here we have a player who has never been warned about rolling away, who is new to the field, and who actually did everything right (he tried to stand in order to participate in the action, exactly what we want players to do). My opinion here is, it should not have been a penalty, but if you acknowledge that Tim Luscombe knows more about refereeing than I, then accept the penalty, but not the yellow. The yellow card seems unduly harsh here.

3. At 69 minutes gone, the score still stood at 25-15 despite Belmont Shore being down two men. Glendale was right at the Belmont Shore tryline and were penalized for not rolling away. As Glendale prepared to kick for touch, Belmont Shore prop can be seen making a couple of comments. Luscombe immediately yellow cards him for back chat, saying he is "sick of it."

Now, and I echo the TV commentators Dan Power and Brian Vizard here, when you have red-carded a player and yellow-carded another player on the same team, you might expect to hear some grumbling, and as a referee you should probably let it slide. Yellow-carding a player for backchat in that situation seemed to me to be piling on, and unnecessary.

BUT ... at the same time, Referee Luscombe had warned both teams in the first half about backchat. It was an odd warning, coming as it did after he marched off ten meters against Glendale. He then called both captains and Belmont Shore's Peter Dahl and told Dahl to zip it. Overall it seemed Luscombe was cranky. Maybe he didn't like the cold. But when a ref says, pipe down or I am going to card you, do you think making comments to him is going to make the situation better?

(An aside here. If you're telling somebody something definitive, like "not another word out of you," the verbal tick of ending the sentence with "OK?" as in "Not another word out of you, OK?" is kind of self-defeating. Just a public service announcement from us here at RUGBYMag.)

(Aside #2. Glendale would not have been at the Belmont tryline if Belmont Shore had had a scrumhalf on the field. Both scrumhalves for the club had been carded. The whole Glendale attack had started with a tighthead put by the Raptors because flyhalf Mata Iosia doesn't know how to feed the scrum properly.)

This is the top league playing right now, with Belmont Shore playing superbly and winning the game. Luscombe's actions – a red card for a borderline play, a yellow card for a borderline play, and a yellow card for back talk – changed the game. In addition, the IRB Law Book addresses this issue, and says such disputing of the referee's decisions should be penalized. Usually that's an extra ten meters, because someone is complaining about a penalty. It's hard to march off ten meters when you're five meters from the goal line. The Law Book says nothing about a card.

(Addendum. The law 10.3.b DOES speak about team-wide warnings and says a card should be issued if such a warning is not heeded. In that case, had Referee Luscombe later cited 10.3.b, then his actions are more supported. Still, I raise the question - do such team-wide warnings have no expiration time? Probably, they don't. - AG)

Right after Belmont Shore went down to 12 men, Glendale scored on an eightman pick to make it 25-22. Moments later it was 25-29. When Nifo returned they were able to hold on quite admirably with only 13 players, but Shore was done, and right at the end Glendale scored once more.

Would Glendale have won without all the cards? I don't think so. With Shore shorthanded by one player, it was up in the air. With three players on the sidelines, the game was virtually handed to the Raptors.

So I just wonder sometimes. Referees often ask players to take a breath and calm down, and I wonder if the refs need to do that sometimes. In my own admittedly heavily imperfect refereeing experiences, I have gotten caught up in anger at being consistently challenged or ignored.

And is it the referee's job to see the context of the game? I've given a red card already, how about a nice severe warning to the player and captain, saying "you don't want to go down to 13 players, but I will make it happen next time."

Had Luscombe done that for Nifo either the game would have remained a contest and Belmont Shore would have won, or Belmont Shore would have continued to be penalized and dug themselves a hole. Either way, I don't think I'd be writing this article. But also either way, I am still not sure it's the referee's job to count how many cards he has given out.

Written by Alex Goff    Wednesday, 05 February 2014 13:52    PDF Print Write e-mail
GoffonRugby: Delving into the Guest Player Idea
Columns - Goff on Rugby

For those precious readers who have read my columns for the past ten or 15 years, you might have detected a few trends in the positions I hold.

Hopefully one of those is that I have been a champion of freedom of player movement, and a champion of better competition.

GoffonRugby is a column written by Alex Goff.So you can imagine my delight at learning that the Pacific Rugby Premiership had instituted a Guest Player program, whereby a player CIPP'd with another team outside of the PRP can be claimed by a PRP team as eligible to play in the new league.

On the face of things, the program allows players with aspirations to be exposed to a solid level of competition. There have been cases of a player who is accomplished in high school, but matriculates to a college rugby program that doesn’t help him get better, and in fact might make him worse. Those players need a challenge. In addition, this program allows those clubs to fill holes, expand their recruiting reach, and play better.

But that’s just the face of it. There are issues in the idea that need to be addressed – reasons some might hate the idea. Let’s look at some of these details.

First off, how this program can get off the ground is because of a loophole. USA Rugby’s eligibility rules state that a player CIPP'd with Club A cannot play in a game “leading to a national championship” for Club B.

Said player could switch clubs for a non-league game (say Club B needs an extra lock for the Aspen Ruggerfest, and they ask our player to join them for the weekend; USA Rugby says that’s fine).

Now, put aside the fact that USA Rugby has sometimes overlooked this rule. The rule as it stands works in the PRP's favor, because the PRP is not a USA Rugby championship. It operates outside of USA Rugby's aegis (although it follows USA Rugby's player registration rules). So, technically, all of the PRP games are, as far as USA Rugby sees it, friendly matches.

So if someone from Cal State Long Beach suits up for Belmont Shore, they are just playing in some random tournament, as far as USA Rugby’s rules are concerned.

But … USA Rugby still has concerns about the plan. It could look like, on the face of it, that clubs can poach any player they want from some unsuspecting DII club or local college, and wine and dine him into switching to the PRP team.

That's a real concern. If you were a college coach and your best player stopped playing for you mid-season because he was getting on-field time for Santa Monica, wouldn't you be a bit miffed?

The PRP clubs, then, operate under a rule, that any player who wants to guest with a club must first discuss it with their existing club officers. Already players have approached some clubs and have been told that they must contact their existing coach and club officers before doing anything, and the existing coach must be aware of the arrangement.

PRP clubs also know that other teams – college and club – are needed. "We don’t want other clubs to hate us," said one PRP club official, and that’s crucial in how this program will succeed. Some are concerned that a PRP team will raid players from another club. Well the answer from GoffonRugby would be two-fold – if a PRP team wanted all of your players, wouldn’t you be winning everything in DI? And second, if all of your players are leaving, what’s wrong with your club?

It's hard to imagine a DI or DII club or a college where all of the players are great but all the players want to leave.

USA Rugby is worried about losing membership; it's hard to imagine how that would happen if players are allowed a little more freedom of movement. It is possible this program will undercut the strength of weak lower-division clubs, but if you've been reading these pages, you will see that happens regardless. Come August, any player can switch clubs, anyway.

Understanding that, USA Rugby is reportedly looking into the idea of a player registering with two teams - something like a primary club and a secondary club, thus allowing that player to play in two separate divisions depending on his schedule and desire.

This could work for USA Rugby and doesn't contradict the PRP plan, because the PRP program locks a guest player to one team (Player Fred can play for his college and, say, OMBAC in the PRP, but he can't then play for Belmont Shore in the same season; he’s an OMBAC guest player only).

And USA Rugby, instead of worrying about losing membership income, might be able to increase it, by charging a player $10 for the extra registration. Wouldn't that be a great way to track it?

My bet? The whole program won’t affect more than 50 players, but those 50 will get an enormous benefit from it.

Written by Alex Goff    Tuesday, 28 January 2014 19:53    PDF Print Write e-mail
GoffonRugby: Isles Question Raises Other Eagle Issues
Columns - Goff on Rugby

Sometimes it's good to hesitate. This column has its beginnings from Saturday night, when it was supposed to explain why the USA 7s team should start Carlin Isles.

Isles off to the races. Dobson Images.
Who should replace Isles on team? Madison Hughes? Ian Muir photo.
GoffonRugby is an opinion column by Alex Goff. Follow Alex on Twitter @goffonrugby
Still elusive. Carlin Isles. Ian Muir photo.
Matt Hawkins has some lineup decisions to make now. Dobson Images.

Well that's moot, for now, seeing as Carlin is going to concentrate on football. Or is it? Hidden between the lines of the speedy USA player's statement to RUGBYMag's Pat Clifton, and his actions, is the message that had Isles been getting more time and, frankly, more respect for his talent, he might have stayed.

That's his choice, one way or the other, and figuring out whether to start him or not is Head Coach Matt Hawkins's job. But there's a lesson here for the future, maybe more than one.

If the USA team gets another player like him, or if Isles comes back, you have to analyze objectively whether he helps you win games. Since Isles started with the team, almost every observer who is not coaching the USA, including some coaches from other teams (based on anecdotes) thinks Isles should have received more game time.

His strike rate is astounding, as he has scored 23 tries in 13 tournaments. Given that he has averaged probably less than seven minutes per match, that's a full-game strike rate that would put him among the top try-scorers on the circuit. In his first game for the USA, he scored a try 30 seconds after setting foot on the pitch.

But we saw in Las Vegas that there's more to Isles than speed.

“It's more about him calling for the ball and wanting the ball. There are times we need to get him the ball, but he needs to create something, that's also on him,” Hawkins said on Saturday. That was fair criticism, to a point, but with a player who has not grown up with rugby, “looking for work” has little meaning. You have to set things up for him. You have to design plays for him. The USA brought back the kick for space for Isles, and that produced tries.

On Sunday in Vegas they produced some key changes that led to tries, bringing Isles up the middle on an attack, and eschewing the fancy tap penalty play for a simple pass to the fast man – Isles, after all, has shown that he can beat players one-on-one and in space, so when you have a penalty or a free kick, that gives him ten meters to find a gap, make a read, and go. They did that against Uruguay, and Isles scored from 85 meters.

So the team needed to do more. The coaches needed to do more to use him. And Isles also needed to do more. In Vegas Isles set up a try by ripping the ball out of a player's hands and then getting into a place to receive the return pass and score. He made at least one try-saving tackle, and set up a try when he made a break, was caught, but executed a perfect offload to Ryan Matyas.

None of this should be a surprise. As elusive as Isles is as a runner, he is not as a person. He was very clear in saying he wanted to learn, he wanted to be an Olympian, and he wanted to play.

So what do we learn from this? We learn that you can't just put an athlete on the field and expect him to perform, even if you teach him how to play rugby. Setting up scenarios that put him in position to help the team – just as you're supposed to do with all of your players – is important, too.

Going forward, the USA team has to replace Isles on the squad. This brings us to the second issue from this weekend, the player mix.

Hawkins wanted a big, physical team to challenge tacklers. When it was working, it provided the USA with immediate go-forward. But putting five size players (Test, Barrett, Thompson, Durutalo, Edwards) on the field with two guys whose game is sidesteps (Niua and Haitsuka) left them without a lot of pace, and also meant that the second-half substitutions changed the team entirely.

You went from 5 big guys and 1 big sidestepper (Niua is actually scary strong) and a tiny guy, to a lineup of perhaps four or fix smallish guys. It's a completely different type of player mix.

On Sunday, Hawkins changed the player mix to a 3-big, 1-middle, 3-small mix. And then bringing Shalom Suniula, Nu'u Punimata, Danny Barrett, Nick Edwards, and Ryan Matyas on brings two big, one medium-big, and two small on.

That kept the player mix consistent. Now with Isles not available for Wellington, who replaces him complicates that mix.

If you pick the player with the best form from the USA Falcons, you might think of Jack Halalilo or Garrett Bender – both big forwards with good work rate but not a lot of pace. If you want to pick the best little fast guy, you should probably go with Madison Hughes. If you want to pick someone who replaces Isles's place as a player with no real home and no defined role, then maybe you go with the misunderstood Mike Te'o.

I don't know what the best option is, although I would lean toward Te'o. But what I do know is this: Carlin Isles showed he can do more than just stand on the wing and wait for the ball; Isles was open for a pass repeatedly over the last year-and-a-half and didn't get the feed; while Isles wasn't a great face-to-face tackler, from the side he was better than most, as he was able to duck under and around fends; Isles is good offloading out of contact, wanted to learn the finer points of the breakdown and other aspects of rugby, and knew the value of a turnover.

And he was not put in the best position to help the USA team. Maybe if he returns, he will be.

Written by Alex Goff    Sunday, 19 January 2014 18:46    PDF Print Write e-mail
GoffonRugby: Pathway Announcement Maybe a Start
Columns - Goff on Rugby

USA Rugby last week announced their High Performance Player Pathway.

The Pathway was announced to try to clarify how talented players get to the national teams.

GoffonRugby is a Column written by Alex Goff

Click here to see an excerpt from Alex Goff's article in RUGBY Magazine in December, outlining how success for the Men's National Team is more about player stability than any cohesive plan.

Click here to seen another excerpt from an Alex Goff Rugby Magazine article, this one touched on USA Rugby's strategic planning, and how they are or are not making progress against their own measurements.

“As the popularity of rugby surges across America, USA Rugby plays the leading role in efforts to increase access, improve quality and expand rugby opportunities for rugby athletes wanting to maximize their potential as elite rugby players,” USA Rugby Chief Executive Officer and President of Rugby Operations Nigel Melville said in the announcement.

The announcement tried to spell out how players move to the elite levels as competitors:

Post-high school players move either directly into college rugby or find work. USA Rugby caters to both categories for both men and women with nearly 900 college rugby programs playing in conferences at Division I, II, III and IV levels. Each level has a national championship match with multiple rounds of playoffs, including the College 7s National Championship with more than 48 men’s and women’s teams.

Post-high school, non-college players graduate into the USA Rugby club program, in which more than 700 clubs regularly run teams and compete for a national championship at the Division I, II and III levels. In the elite club category, the Elite Cup represents the highest level of competition for men and the Women’s Premier League for women.

USA Rugby also runs the Men’s and Women’s Junior All-Americans, the national U20 teams. The MJAAs compete annually in either the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy – which was won on home soil in 2012 – or the IRB Junior World Championship, while the WJAAs play two to three international matches each year.

Players who excel at the college level may be invited to play in an increasing number of college conference all-star teams being developed in 2014. In 2015, it is planned to coordinate completion for college all-star teams to provide All-American college selectors with an opportunity to attend the All-American combine camps and selection for the AIG Men’s and Women’s Collegiate All-American teams.

The Men’s Collegiate All-Americans play three fixtures each year during the summer, alternating between an overseas tour and domestic competition. The MCAA Sevens team competes in sevens rugby events during the summer, as well. The Women’s Collegiate All-Americans (WCAAs) team is an evolving program with plans to develop an annual fixture list similar to that of the MCAAs.
During the next few years, the club game for men and women will be a focus of USA Rugby’s efforts to retain college and high school players in the game of rugby. This will be achieved by improving the level of competition and continuing to improve facilities and the quality of the “club rugby experience” for men and women.

Newly-formed Geographical Unions (GUs) are developing and raising the levels of administration of the game at the local level and are encouraged to develop all-star teams to play in a national tournament. In 2014, there will be a number of GU all-star teams playing games within their respective regions and hosting teams from outside of the area. USA Rugby national team selectors will have representation at these games and players identified as potential Eagles will be invited to attend future Eagles camps or perhaps participate in the Eagles Stars v. Stripes Games.

Men’s Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin is developing a 2014 Stars v. Stripes Elite Camp, to which the country’s best domestic players will be invited to play in a tryout match. Successful players will be invited to join the Eagles Select squad, which represents USA Rugby in the Americas Rugby Championship.

Men’s Eagles Sevens Head Coach Matt Hawkins also selects a Falcons Sevens team each summer to compete in a small number of sevens tournaments against top domestic and international competition around the world.

The USA Rugby national teams, for men and women in both 15- and seven-a-side rugby sevens styles of play, are called the Eagles. Each team has a comprehensive playing schedule that includes the IRB Rugby World Cup (15s and sevens), the IRB HSBC Sevens World Series (men), the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series, Pan Am Games (sevens men and women) and Olympics (sevens men and women).

This announcement is essentially a nod to the fact that USA Rugby eliminated the national all-star championships in college and among men's clubs.

But there needs to be a step between club or college and the All Americans or the National Team. If this plan is followed, then maybe there's a new era of development of national team players.

This plan gives at least a cursory nod to club players. It does commit to a trial match for the USA Selects. But the chart has to have some heft behind it. The message from USA Rugby is, they won't provide that heft.

And I quote:

Newly-formed Geographical Unions (GUs) are developing and raising the levels of administration of the game at the local level and are encouraged to develop all-star teams to play in a national tournament.

Translation: We made a chart that includes GU all-star teams, but we know there is no championship for them. We figure they'll just put it together, and if they don't, it's not our fault!

So it's a plan of sorts, but one full of holes. It's a pathway, but it still doesn't address how the individual players are developed ... maybe we'll see that later.

Written by Alex Goff    Monday, 25 November 2013 21:01    PDF Print Write e-mail
GoffonRugby: USA Rugby's Mea Culpa Nice, but Not Necessary
Columns - Goff on Rugby

This weekend USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville issued a lengthy apology for not having a live webstream of the USA v. Russia game.

GoffonRugby is a column written by Alex GoffThe move is somewhat unprecedented in that the USA team has, many times, played with no TV coverage or webstream coverage, and in those instances USA Rugby has usually shown a "yeah, so what?" attitude. But, in addition, this statement by Melville was different because it referred to a game not played in the United States.

Essentially, Melville was apologizing because USA Rugby didn't provide live video coverage from a country several thousand miles away of a game that, until fairly recently, they thought was going to be shown live by the IRB.

Even then, they attempted to get it together, but were stymied by huge bandwidth costs.

I say, Nigel Melville has nothing to apologize for. I am glad he did it, and I am very glad USA Rugby posted the team video of the game. It's obvious fans want to see it. But any comments (and there were plenty, even on USA Rugby's own website) that say USA Rugby dropped the ball are too harsh.

Sure, you could livestream your kid's little league game, but who cares if the quality is lousy? And, for that matter, try providing video coverage of a rugby game, where you can't get close to the action with an iffy camera. Try showcasing your country's national team with a poor camera.

I say USA Rugby made the right call by not spending huge amounts of money to stream the game live at short notice. I also think that in the future, this type of coverage has to be provided for every game. It is easier than it used to be to live-stream rugby games. It costs some money for equipment, but not a huge amount. So USA Rugby should start thinking about not relying on others to stream games overseas, and starting doing it themselves.

The host team has rights for their TV coverage? Great, geo-block the stream to just USA. Just one camera? If it's a good camera, and a good internet connection (critical for a webstream), then one camera is fine.

Anyway, thanks, Nigel, for the apology. I, for one, appreciate someone taking a little responsibility and not just ignoring the fact that fans wanted to see the game. But at the same time, you didn't need to give us one, or at least, not one so serious. And even if maybe an apology was necessary, I would suggest to those who want to singe USA Rugby for this episode, pull back your firebrands and wait for something worthwhile to complain about.

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