Following the end of the British and Irish Lions’ tour there was a spate of articles, comment and analysis of Romain Poite’s refereeing.

More accurately, the decision at the end of the 3rd Test to award a scrum rather than a penalty.

Laws were consulted, arguments raged and calls for the laws to be simplified were repeated. The 1014’s Secret Referee tried to shed some light on the matter. Tried being the operative word; still, people were left arguing one side or the other. The one thing that everybody seemed united on was that French Referees interpret the laws differently to everybody else.

This may or may not be correct, but perception is a powerful thing!

I am no linguist, et mon français est tres mal, but I remember that French has many different negatives. And the word order can change the emphasis on them. So I wondered if the reason French referees give different rulings to the English speaking referees is simply that the laws are different in French.

I don’t want to revisit the 3rd Test argument; this is not what this is about. This said, if you go to the World Rugby site and look up the relevant laws you will find:

11.6 Accidental offside

(a) When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside. If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.
(b) When a player hands the ball to a team-mate in front of the first player, the receiver is offside. Unless the receiver is considered to be intentionally offside (in which case a penalty kick is awarded), the receiver is accidentally offside, and a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

11.7 Offside after a knock-on

When a player knocks-on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage.
Sanction: Penalty kick

French Referee
Does the translation make a big difference?

If you translate the French version back into English you get this:

11.6 Accidental offside

(a) When an offside player can not avoid being hit by the ball or a teammate who wears, it is accidentally offside. If the player’s team does not advantage, the game must continue. If she gains an advantage, the referee shall award a scrum, the opposing team throwing in the ball.

(b) When a player gives the ball from hand to hand to a teammate in front of him, this partner is offside. Unless the player who receives the ball is considered as deliberately offside (cases in which a penalty kick should be granted), this player is accidentally offside, and the referee must grant a Scrum, the opposing team throwing in the ball.

11.7 offside after a knock-on

When a player makes a knock-on, and an offside teammate then played football, the offside player is subject to a penalty if playing the ball has deprived the opponent an advantage.
Sanction: Penalty kick

As you can see the French versions give slightly different emphasis. Only slightly. However, when you are interpreting laws this can give a different outcome. It is possible that although the laws are interpreted correctly, the audio we hear maybe misleading.

Next time a French referee gives an unusual decision, please, check the French version of the laws before criticising.


Author: Paul Futers

Born in Dundee, Scotland to English parents who moved around the country before settling in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I discovered Rugby at secondary school and played until I was involved in an accident during a 1st XV game.
At university I was awarded half colours for my work as Sports Editor for the student newspaper.
My favourite pass time is watching my youngest son play for South Shields Westoe in the age grades with my father-in-law and his father.


    • Thanks for the comment ClarkG.

      As I say in the article the differences are very subtle but they are there.

      In this case the English version says the player is sanctioned if he stops the opposition from gaining an advantage and the French version says he is sanctioned if he takes the advantage from the opposition. Not much of a difference, I agree, but it illustrates my point. French referees may be giving unusual rulings because the emphasis in the laws is changed in translation. It would also explain why French supporters dislike Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens; in French eyes they must give equally odd interpretations of the laws.

  1. I feel like World Rugby have considered that. There are people out there who make a living translating things to try and get as direct and clear a translation as possible. That is very different to plugging the laws into a translator and seeing what comes out. French is an official language of rugby, and as such I’m sure a lot of effort has been put into translating the laws into French. That being said, I actually really like the premise of the article and will definitely consider it next time something like this happens. I just think more compelling evidence would be nice!

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Seej.

      You are absolutely right when you say that a proper translation is very different from using a translation program. Of course World Rugby will have been as careful as possible to make the translations as accurate as possible. The problem I see is that we need to accept that emphasis and interpretation can change in translation and that referees from different nations will be ruling on the laws as set out in their own language, which may lead them to give differing rulings.

      I am glad you liked the article and agree that more evidence would be nice but as I said, my French is very bad and I had limited space to make my point, if more people start to consider what the law might be in the referees language before criticizing their decisions it will have served its purpose.


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