I vowed to be insufferable about the Rugby World Cup, in no small part to exact vengeance for all that soccer talk last summer perpetrated on HIO. And I feel I've not quite been living up to my promise.
But this morning as I've got one of the many rugby games backlogged on my PVR playing in the background, the Samoa-Japan game, I'm shocked to see the referee award not one but two yellow cards in quick succession against the Samoans, early in the game. A yellow card means a player is sent off the field for ten minutes. So fifteen minutes in they're playing 13 against 15.
One was for a high, late tackle with no attempt to wrap up the tacklee with the arms, it was more of a shoulder charge, like a body check in hockey or a block in football, which isn't allowed in rugby. The second was for a tackle of an opponent who was in the air contesting a ball that was kicked.
This is notable for a few reasons, and in stark contrast to NHL hockey when it comes to refereeing. One important point is that the Japanese side is excellently coached, is an attacking team that is creative and aggressive with the ball. It's a team on the rise in the World Rankings.
Meanwhile, the Samoan side, while comprised of incredible specimens, naturally large and gifted players, tends to rely on its size advantage to excess, they try to intimidate and impose their will, and usually lapse into instances of indiscipline.
You can see where I'm going with this. In hockey, the Samoans would be the tough, physical team who play old-time hockey, who push the boundaries, and generally get one penalty called for every ten infraction they make. Because if you called every infraction, that team would be two players down the whole game, they'd have five or six guys in the penalty box, and that's not 'fair', right?
Well in this instance, in rugby, the referee didn't take this into account, he didn't put his thumb on the scale. He didn't overlook an obvious infraction to give the team already a man down a fighting chance. He saw an obvious infraction and called the penalty and assessed the additional yellow card.
Further, the second yellow card wasn't just an annoying technicality that had to be called due to the rulebook, like an illegal formation penalty in the NFL. The Japanese player was up in the air trying to field a kick, to receive the ball and do something with it. The Japanese player was trying to play rugby, the Samoan who cause the infraction was just trying to prevent that, to bog things down. He had the option to contest the kick too, to jump in the air as well to try to catch the ball, he just elected to take out the Japanese fullback instead.
So the referee is protecting the players, mindful of their safety with his strict but correct interpretations, with his management of the game, but also keeping the game open and exciting, an important consideration for fans.
And he's undeterred, unafraid to call more. Unlike Saturday night in Boston, when the Bruins got an early penalty and were scored upon, and were then given free rein, the refs fearful to 'inject themselves into the game', to decide the outcome. Brad Marchand was allowed to run rampant, to impregnate the game with his brand of vileness, with slashes and slewfoots and cynical punches to the head.
Here, in this game, the ref just warned the Samoans that if they cause another offside infraction, they'll incur not just another penalty, but a further yellow card. It's understandable what the Samoans are doing, they're creeping up on the play, trying to negate the Japanese team's speed and ball handling advantage by taking away their space, with early tackles, but the ref is having none of it. He's making them respect the letter of the law, and not incidentally, favouring a more open, exciting, fan-friendly brand of rugby, as opposed to a game where you can't advance the ball, and both sides just start to tediously kick the ball back and forth.
The comparison to hockey is easy to make. How many times do you see a team outclassed in terms of speed or talent or both resort to thuggery, to hooks and slashes and post-whistle scrums to slow down the opposition? Sound like Brandon Dubinsky against Sidney Crosby? The Bruins against the Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final? If the refs called the game tight, according to the rule book, the Bruins would get mauled by the Canadiens or the Lightning, but they get bashful after a few whistles against one team. They feel they have to 'even it up'.
But Gary Bettman keeps telling us that the game is growing, revenues and attendance are increasing, so everything's great right?
Except that the NFL, MLB and NBA's are rising much faster than the NHL. They're on multiple channels and forefront in the American public's mind, while hockey is an afterthought, behind golf and NASCAR and college sports and Dancing with the Stars.
But don't worry, Gary has a plan, all he needs to do is figure out how to shoehorn a Dorion Suits logo on the Blue Jackets uniform.