Checklist for failure

A game of rugby can be an absolute thing of beauty, but it can also be a real dogs breakfast. The sheer complexity of the laws when combined with an over exuberant referee and a group of players with little to no law knowledge is like a slow motion car crash, you don’t want to look, but you simply can’t look away.

The rugby Law book has more words than the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights even after 2018’s simplification. You could be forgiven for not knowing your way around the rugby law.

One of the questions World Rugby wrestle with year after year is how to help men and women understand and participate in this great sport, without having to have a PHD in law.

If you were to enrol in a foundations course, the first step in becoming a referee or a player coach, you would find yourself interacting with an experienced instructor who will take you through a series of practical and theoretical situations to help you understand the game. I’ve done many of these courses over the years, and they are fun, challenging and a good opportunity to connect with other likeminded individuals. One of the cornerstones of these courses (and early years refereeing) is known as a ‘checklist’. A list of things to look for, and in what order.

As an example at a tackle;

1) Is there a tackle (Ball carrier brought to ground Y/N)?

2) Has the tackler released the player?

3) Has the ball carrier played the ball immediately (place, pass or release)?

4) Are arriving players arriving through the gate?

5) Is everyone who enters the tackle staying on their feet (or at least looking like a plane taking off)?

6) Is there a player from each team in the contest? (Y/N)

If there is a player from each team in the contest it magically becomes a ruck and then there is a whole new checklist (and different law applicable).

Initially this is great. It gives new referees something to focus on. It gives referee coaches something concrete to give feedback on, and ultimately if you can remember one checklist and get through every point on it… you are doing pretty well. You’ll blow about 40 penalties, but it’s a good place to start.

It’s about 5 years in to refereeing, when you are consistently nailing your checklists that we see some of the worst refereeing performances in a young referees career. Penalty counts start to rise, players get (even more) frustrated, and what’s worse is the referee isn’t actually wrong. They are applying the law… but its an OVER application.

At any phase of play on average I reckon you can find 6 legitimate penalties to award. Every one valid, but most of the time, in the interest of the game it needs to be let go. An infringement that has no material effect on the game should be disregarded, or managed on the run. There are enough interruptions in a game without needing 30+ penalties on top.

It’s only when referees begin to understand the shape of the game, the likely outcomes and what players are trying to achieve at each phase of play that games start to flow. Once referees cultivate a framework approach to their craft, things drastically improve.

Referee’s that know their checklists, but leave them in the bag cultivate the conditions for much better matches. Abandoning a legalistic application of law to pursue a positive framework in the best interest of the match. It is important to note, infringements that are overlooked are rarely left unpunished, but rather are addressed in alternate times and manners.

A common critique of the bible is that it is simply a checklist of things you have to do, in order to placate a scary bloke in the sky. This approach, fundamentally misses the point and is a checklist approach in a framework world.

To make matters worse, many young Christians get bogged down in a rules based approach to the bible. Starting with the 10 commandments, continually assessing themselves against the good-o-meter, and are shocked to find they fall short.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus. – Romans 3:23-24

Perfection is not obtainable by ourselves. It is only by the blood of Jesus that any of us can be redeemed. It is only when we move from a checklist approach to the bible toward a grace based framework for life we can start to see the beauty of God’s creation.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourself, it is the gift of God – bot by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9

Referees and Christians alike can constantly fall in to the trap of thinking the game, and their life, is all about them.

One of the greatest life lessons I’ve learnt was from a referee friend in New Zealand, strangely enough after about 5 years of refereeing where I was bogged down in the self-absorbed, checklist-based thinking. He simply said to me. “Davo, it’s not about you.”

He was talking about Rugby, but I was challenged about my life and rugby together. It’s too easy to get bogged down in constant disappointment and failure. Too easy to focus on small details as miss the big picture. Every winning team misses a few tackles along the way.

Ditch the checklist and live for Jesus, on and off the field.


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