You probably noticed that the Six Nations rugby tournament began over the weekend, with the anticipated highlight perhaps being the Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England. That is Scotland, who were dreadfully unlucky to lose to Australia in their quarter-final match at the Rugby World Cup last October, versus England, who as hosts didn’t even manage to get out of their group. Australia (and Wales) did for them, too.

By all accounts, the referee erred with a crucial decision in the final minute of that game, which led to the penalty by which the Aussies beat the Scots. And there, I think, you have the huge problems with rugby: referees and penalties.


Refs first (and I’m not even getting into the way in which northern and southern hemisphere referees regard things differently). With the controversial decision in the Scotland/Australia game, it took several replays for even the expert commentators to agree on what had occurred. And although rugby embraces technology in a manner in which football does not, the referee could not use it in this instance to review his decision, which evidently had been a complicated call to make. Also, while it wasn’t an issue on this occasion, another problem with rugby is that the ball spends so much time hidden from view that often nobody – certainly not the spectators, often not the experts, sometimes not even the referee – seems to know what’s been going on/kicking off. Floodlit rugby? The game can leave you in the dark.

Then there’s this. Football is about winning matches by scoring goals. The equivalent in rugby should be scoring tries, worth five points. But it’s mostly about penalties, worth three points. These are frequently given for comparatively innocuous infractions in the middle of the pitch. In football that would be like a minor foul 40 yards out leaving a free shot at an empty goal, a successful effort being worth 60% of a ‘proper’ goal. For an offside in the middle of nowhere!

For sure there are ways in which football could be improved, but I think this flaw in rugby is fundamental. Either penalties should only be able to be taken directly at goal for three points if the offence is serious foul play and/or the authorities should reduce the value of a penalty from three points to one in most circumstances. Or, I guess, as they have done previously, they should make a try worth more points, say perhaps ten? If that had been the case, maybe Chris Robshaw wouldn’t have looked such a fool for choosing to kick for touch instead of goal in that England/Wales World Cup game. But that’s a different point: whether one, three or five of them.

As for the Calcutta Cup, England won 15-9. And by two tries to none. So the right result, any which way you scored it.