There are those that will say that last week’s 37-31 win by Waseda University over the touring New Zealand Universities side on April 27 was a sign that there is nothing wrong with the local rugby scene.
And it has to be said, the Waseda players did themselves and their university proud, tackling their opposition into the ground and showing why they are the reigning university champions of Japan.
However, one statistic highlighted the difference between the two sides, and is cause for considerable concern.
During the course of the game referee Akihiko Goryozono decided that the laws of the game were broken 30 times — in itself a high figure. However, what infuriated the visitors, and eventually led to them losing both their temper and concentration, was the fact that 28 of the penalties went against the New Zealanders.
In other words, according to Goryozono not only were the Kiwis guilty of committing 14 times as many offenses as their Japanese counterparts but the Waseda team was only two penalties away from playing a perfect game.
As anyone who has played the game will tell you, that is quite frankly rubbish.
What makes this all the more worrying is that a number of other touring teams have left Japan with the same sour taste in their mouths. While none have openly talked about referees favoring the home team — though on Sunday one New Zealand player was quite clearly heard saying, “How much are you paying the ******* referee” — much has been said of the inadequacies of the local officials.
In 2001, Wales lost its opening tour match to Suntory 45-41. Again all credit to the local players but in a period of 67 minutes Wales was awarded just one penalty to countless in favor of the home team.
Tour captain Andrew Moore tried to put a brave face on it diplomatically saying: “There are still differences in interpretation, especially in the rucks and mauls. I guess we are lucky in Wales because we have international standard referees week in week out.”
The official line was, “No problems, things will work out,” but coach Lyn Howells was secretly seething at the apparent inadequacies of the local referees to play to international laws.
It was surely no coincidence that the following week, in the first game on the tour to be played with a foreign referee applying international laws, Wales went out and beat Japan 64-10.
Later that year it was the turn of Cambridge University to earn the wrath of a Japanese referee.
Head coach Tony Rodgers said after his team was beaten Kanto Gakuin: “I have to say that we were amazed at the number of penalties given against us. It was very hard to play when we were virtually whistled off the park. The penalty count felt like it was 4-1 against us, and we only had possession for about 10 percent of the match. He seemed to be going through the whole law book regarding penalties. One side does not go out to deliberately infringe.”
In September 2002 it was the turn of Oxford University to visit and sure enough the same problem arose.
“If Japanese rugby is to move forward as a game, they must ensure the officials have the same ability as the players,” said head coach Steve Hill. “We were on the wrong end of some inexplicable decisions, and for the good of Japanese rugby it is something they must address seriously. The Japanese players will be at a disadvantage in the Rugby World Cup if their players have been playing to these rules. I feel sorry for the spectators because there were 25-30 penalties with two teams who had come to play expansive rugby.”
For certain Japanese writers to say that referees in Japan are world class and allow the game to be played in an unbiased way fair to both sides is, quite frankly, ridiculous, and borne out by the fact that not a single Japanese referee has been invited to the 2003 Rugby World Cup finals.
The problem is twofold. Not only are the laws interpreted in a different way in Japan but the referees seem to think they are the most important person on the field.
At the beginning of the 2002 season, the players from the Yokohama Athletic and Country Club were instructed on the new laws as they were being applied in Japan. They were told that the law regarding the tackle situation was applied differently in Japan because there had been a mistranslation when the new law book had been sent from the International Rugby Board.
One only has to watch a game in Japan to see that that is not the only law that is interpreted in a different way. Rugby is a game that should be played on the feet, yet time and time again players in Japan go to deck and kill the ball and the flow of the game. Yet this is accepted and indeed players are even coached and encouraged to do this.
No wonder Japanese teams perform so miserably when they tour and are forced to play to the laws as enforced in the rest of the world.
Eight years ago when rugby first turned professional there was a huge gap, even in countries such as New Zealand, between the levels of the player and coaches and that of the referees and touch judges. The referees were, therefore, encouraged to train with the players and by understanding what the coaches were trying to implement on the field, the officials were able to raise their own levels of professionalism.
One can only hope that the JRFU, as it prepares for the introduction of the Top League, forces its referees to eat some humble pie and do the same.
The best referees are those that let the game flow while stamping down their authority (no pun intended) on any rough play. Yet this is a concept that seems lost on the majority of referees in Japan.
In August 2002, Peter Marshall, regarded as one of the best referees in the world, officiated the game between Suntory and the touring Saracens team. The general consensus from the players was that the Australian had done a great job both in communicating his wishes and in playing as much advantage as possible to ensure the game flowed — to the obvious delight of the crowd. The reaction from most Japanese referees watching the game was that “he had missed too many things.”
Rugby is a game for the players and the fans. It is also a game played worldwide to a common set of laws. It is high time Japanese referees realize this and stop ruining the game in Japan by their over-officious application of local laws that only serve to hinder Japanese players when they play on the world stage.
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