Ask the Ref: Material Knock-Ons
Thursday Apr 30, 2009 in Off the Field Ask the Ref
Hey Ref: "Why is it you never see a knock-on ruled as immaterial?"
Infractions such as a knock-on, forward pass, or not straight throw in the lineout are rarely ruled immaterial because they are technical infringements. One should expect every technical infringement to be considered material under normal circumstances.
Recalling from an earlier column, if an action occurs that does not conform to the Laws, the referee may judge whether that action has a material affect on play. If the action is not material, the referee often allows play to continue without sanctioning that infringement. This is different from Advantage, which is defined by Law 8: if an infringement of the Laws is material, the referee may allow play to continue if a "clear and real" advantage exists (Ref. Law 8.2). If an advantage is not gained, a material infringement must always be sanctioned.
In rugby, infringements are commonly considered as falling into one of two categories: technical and (for lack of a better descriptor) tactical. Generally, technical infringements relate to rugby skills (i.e. catching and throwing the ball, etc) while tactical infringements relate to choices made by the players (i.e. tackler responsibilities, rucking, etc). The fact that these are treated differently should be obvious: for example, I have yet to see a team penalized for repeated knock-ons, even though Law 10.3(a) states that "a player must not repeatedly infringe any law."
To a keen or astute observer, though, this whole conversation may seem a bit odd considering the following: the word "materiality" does not appear anywhere within the Laws and "material" is only used within the Laws and Regulations regarding players clothing. The only Law that allows for what we commonly term "the use of materiality" appears to be Law 6.A.4(a) which states that the "referee is the sole judge of fact and of Law...[and] must apply fairly all the Laws of the Game." Thus, the concept of "materiality" appears to be an outgrowth of the requirement that the referee apply the Laws "fairly."
The question then becomes: what is fair? Or more importantly, what is perceived as fair? Most players and referees believe it is fair to penalize a team for making a clear-cut skills error - especially in a League match. However, what about if you are sitting in the dead of winter on the Scottish coast, rain a bucket a drop in a wind so stiff it sometimes feels like it is coming up, refereeing two teams in a Friendly as they sit out there turning blue? Rarely in these games is there ever a scrum without a slight knock-on at the base. In these kinds of situations, it is often in the interest of the game to consider such knock-ons immaterial and allow play to proceed. As long as both teams are offered the same leeway, ruling that a knock-on is immaterial in these situations (i.e. in your judgment, the knock on never occurred) would be more than fair.
In a competitive match, a team should be allowed to capitalize on a skills error made by their opponent. As a referee for a League match, considering all technical infringements material is in the interest of promoting the fastest, hardest game that the players are willing and able to play.
However, sometimes an infringement is better left unseen.
- Chris Draper © www.erugbynews.com