Reason: Two points for a penalty - let's try it

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 05/03/2014
Steve Walsh
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AH, REF: It's time to reduce the value of the penalty in order to reduce the influence of referees like Steve Walsh.

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OPINION: It's a dread cracking noise like a door being forced off its hinges. It's the nightmare sound of England thumping their way to the next World Cup, muscle-bound men in stretched white shirts marching across Albion's landscape to the triumphalist strain of Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

Then I woke up. It doesn't have to be like that. The IRB could do away with such ugly possibilities. They could stop England throwing a white shadow over the game and squeezing home field penalties out of referees. The IRB could change the scoring system.

It is not as if it would be the first time. In the 1970s they upped the try to four points. In the 1990s they upped the try to five points. We are due for another recount. It is time to reduce the value of the penalty goal. It is time to reduce the influence of the referee.

Yes, it would be a big change, but perhaps not quite as radical as people might think. If the penalty goal had been worth two points, the result of only two matches in the history of the World Cup's knockout phase would have been changed. In 2007 Australia would have beaten England in the quarter-finals. In 2011 Wales would have beaten France in the semi-finals.

There are strange parallels. Both are recent matches. Both England and France were dull sides who had been in disarray earlier in the tournament. Their response was to suck the life out of games and hope to scrape a victory through penalties. Under the new laws both teams would have failed, and the more adventurous Aussies and Welsh would have progressed.

There are a heap of compelling reasons for reducing the value of the penalty (and the drop goal) to two points. Once upon a time, rugby was primarily a game of manly combat, a mini-war. A try was just that, an opportunity, a try to kick a goal. Points were earned through brute force and kicking. So no surprise, then, that the game was developed in England.

If you were forced to touch down the ball behind your own line it was a point to the opposition, much as in American Football today. In the early part of the 20th century the try became worth three points, the same as a penalty goal, and a drop goal was worth four. But over time the scoring system evolved.

As television became more influential, the spectator gained in value. Entertainment became more of a consideration. The try increased in value.

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The five point try was sufficient until players became even fitter, stronger and more intensely coached. We now have a game where the referee's decisions are more "arbitrary". I can probably replay at least 50% of decisions in an international or Super Rugby game and reasonably question the validity of those decisions.

Teams are winning too many games through the caprice of the referee. It is ludicrous that scrummage penalties decide games, when most refs are guessing. The breakdown is another constant contradiction of interpretation.

So let's reduce the value of the penalty in order to reduce the influence of the ref. Let's neuter Steve Walsh. Under the new points system the Hurricanes would have beaten the Stormers 16-15 at the weekend. The positive Cheetahs would have beaten the dull Brumbies in last year's Super quarter-finals and would have beaten the Lions earlier this season, a match they lost despite scoring two tries to nil.

The IRB have already trialled a similar system in South Africa's 2012 Varsity competition and many of the results were encouraging. In fact the IRB took it further, reducing the value of the penalty to two, but increasing the value of a conversion to three. Look away now, but under that system France would have won the 2011 World Cup final 8-7 - except they wouldn't have been there, having already been knocked out by Wales.

The results of the Varsity trial suggested that try scoring will increase and that penalties will also go up in number, but not by as much as may be expected. With any change in the laws, there is always the danger of unintended consequence. If you decrease the value of the penalty goal, sides will be keener to infringe.

But there are ways to deal with this, ways that are perhaps already overdue. Diving in soccer is punished by a yellow card. The professional foul that prevents a clear goal-scoring opportunity is punished by a red card.

It has long been evident to many observers that rugby should go the same way. Refs are far too cosy with the players - there is far more separation in soccer, and that is a good thing - and as a result they let them get away with murder.

Any player who runs a screen in front of the ball carrier and makes avoidable contact with an opposition player, should be sent to the sin bin. That would make attacks think again about cynical cheating.

Any player who deliberately infringes to stop a try scoring opportunity should receive at least 20 minutes in the sin bin or be sent off. There was just such a blatant act from George Whitelock against the Chiefs a couple of weeks ago. If we decrease the value of the penalty, then refs need to be given the power to get tougher on cheating players.

Three penalties equal a converted try in league, but at the moment three penalties beat a converted try in union. We need to think again, although I am not sure about also raising the value of a conversion to three, unless the try scorer was also obliged to take the conversion. Now that would be entertaining.

- Fairfax Media

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