We have had it in Super Rugby of late and it seems to have caused some confusion in how a referee should act after contact in play.
Yet it is old law little changed.
It appears in writing first in 885 and reads: 'The ball is dead if it touches an Umpire or Referee, and scrummaged on the spot.' (Umpires were the forerunners of assistant referees but were actually on the field and close to play.)
This the essence of modern law.
Originally it was about the ball touching the referee but there was a change in 1892: 'He [the referee] must blow his whistle if the ball or a player running with the ball touch him.' In 1911 it was laid down that if a player carrying the ball in ingoal made contact with the referee a touchdown should be awarded where the contact was made.
In 1958 there was an important change. If the referee considered that neither team had gained an advantage from the referee's contact with the ball or ball-carrier, he was to allow play to continue. This goes for contact in ingoal as well.
The Law is now as follows:
Law 6.A.9 THE BALL TOUCHING THE REFEREE
(a) If the ball or the ball-carrier touches the referee and neither team gains an advantage, play continues. If either team gains an advantage in the field of play, the referee orders a scrum and the team that last played the ball has the throw-in.
(b) If either team gains an advantage in in-goal, if the ball is in possession of an attacking player the referee awards a try where the contact took place.
(c) If either team gains an advantage in in-goal, if the ball is in possession of a defending player, the referee awards a touch down where the contact took place.
All of that is clear. But what happens when a defender makes contact with the referee and is impeded from getting to a ball-carrier?
It happened when Tawera Kerr-Barlow scored a try for the Chiefs from a tackle/ruck close to the Hurricanes' line. The referee is watching matters and moves forward to be in a position to judge whether or not a try was scored. In doing so he gets into the defensive path of Chris Eaton the Hurricanes' scrumhalf.
There is nothing in the laws that covers such an eventuality. It's hard luck. the referee was not doing anything wrong. In fact he was doing the right thing, getting into position to do his duty and he had no means of evaporating.
Imagine of the law allowed the referee to stop the game if a defender made contact with him. He would become fair game for all desperate defenders!