By BARRY FAGUY
This is reworked from an earlier article from years ago about this very important subject – the group of complex factors that relate to decision-making when it comes to the ‘access’ form of interference. Again, this is personal opinion – so read it critically and decide for yourself if it can be useful for you in improving your officiating.
The most common use of the term ‘blocking’, as used by Referees and players, is not specifically referred to in the rules. Its current use generally refers to a punishable action by the outgoing player (that we’ll call the ‘blocker’), whose clearing action is purposefully wrong. In an article from many years ago by David Donelly, former head of the WSF Rules Subcommittee, he makes it clear that “blocking is the art of creating an obstruction without appearing to do so”. It can take the form of:
- a slow movement to clear
- a sway in body movement
- a carelessly extended arm
- a wrong direction to clear
- a dragging foot.
The intention of this less-than-fair action is to stop the incoming striker from getting rapid access to the ball, hoping that the blocker’s shot turns out to be a winner, or that, as a worst case scenario for the blocker, a let is awarded to the incoming striker. In essence, the ‘blocker’ is attempting to have the best of both worlds. Of course, this is a form of cheating – and when detected by the Referee, this action should be punished with a stroke against the blocker on the grounds that not every effort to clear was made. I just wanted to make it clear that this is an issue of unfair play by the blocker before we proceed now to the main area of concern under our main title.
The flip side
The other use of the term ‘blocking’ is the flip side of the above. This use is specifically referred to in the rules with the words “block (ing) the opponent’s exit”, and is found in the first paragraph of Guideline 6. However, in this essay, I will use the word ‘trapped’ to differentiate it from the ‘blocking’ of the first paragraph above in order to keep things clear. This ‘trapping’ is basically a neutral action (not unfair play) because we assume it isn’t purposefully wrong like the blocking referred to in the first paragraph. In contrast to the first example, here the ‘blocker’ (or trapper) is the other player – the incoming striker who is making a legitimate attempt to get in and play the ball but blocks or traps the outgoing player’s effort to clear. I’ve used the word ‘neutral’ above to set the tone that this is not a form of cheating – but even though it is ‘neutral’, that’s not to say that there’s never any punishment associated with it.
The most common of all occurrences
‘Trapping’ is a very common situation that any experienced Referee has seen thousands of times. I believe it is the single, most applied principle in the rules, found, as mentioned previously, in the first paragraph of Guideline 6. By far, the lion’s share of decisions are Yes Lets; and by far they are for the ‘access’ form of interference; and by far, they are because the incoming striker has trapped the outgoing opponent’s exit.
Typically, after hitting a shot, the outgoing player starts to clear (legitimately – not blocking as described in the first paragraph of this article) in order to allow the incoming striker to get in – but then that escape (exit) is trapped. The trapping can take the form of anything from an outright ‘brick wall or bear hug’ kind of barrier, to colliding shoulders, to just a simple ‘hand on the back’ kind of contact by the incoming striker who is moving in to get to the ball. Typically the incoming striker is trying to avoid serious contact. (We are also assuming here, that this is legitimate trapping – not a case of the incoming striker ‘creating’ an artificial interference to fish for a stroke – a concept dealt with in another article.) The contact here is enough to stop play and have the Referee understand that a let is being called. In any case, it often looks bad for the outgoing player because everyone is huddled together when that player is stuck there – often with the ball continuing back towards both players.
(It’s interesting to note that although it’s not stated as such, when indeed a ball does return into the now non-striker, this is often an instance of Referee decision without appeal (12.11). Since the trapped (outgoing) opponent is not allowed to call for a let in such interference situations, theoretically, when the striker traps the opponent, he/she could claim that they are not in fact asking for a let until the ball has reached both players. This would in most cases result in an unfair award of a stroke to the incoming striker, so we often have to make a ruling without either player asking.)
What shall we do?
Here are 3 considerations that will help decide the fair outcome:
- The route (right or wrong) taken by the outgoing player to clear
- The speed (fast or slow) of the ball and the players
- The distance (close or far) of the incoming striker from the ball.
Regarding the 1st bullet, Guideline 6 specifies that the route of the outgoing player must be such that it allows the incoming striker direct access to the ball. Therefore, if the outgoing player had the opportunity to establish such an exit route ( meaning there was a delay in moving, or a step or two was taken), and you as the Referee clearly see that this route was the wrong one ( essentially towards the incoming striker), then your decision to penalize the outgoing player is a lot easier. Unfortunately, as things usually go, the trapping is often so rapid that the outgoing player barely has time to straighten up – and play stops. The incoming striker asks for a let, the players are in an embrace, and as a result, we often have no idea what the intended exit route was.
The speed & distance
The 2nd & 3rd bullets suggest that this trapping can occur both when the striker is close to or far from the ball, and with a fast or slow moving ball. The guideline was created so we could give consideration to, and perhaps reasonably assume, that the outgoing player would also have been a step further away, and thus clear, by the time the incoming striker would be a step closer. More simply put, we are looking to see if the opponent would have been clear had it not been for the blocking.
Bottom Line suggestions
So, at the moment of trapping, we might want to consider the following:
NO LET – if the incoming striker could not have made a good return (pretty obvious – eh!)
STROKE – if the outgoing player had time to establish a path and took the wrong one.
STROKE – if the incoming striker was right at the ball at the point of trapping
YES LET – if the incoming striker still needed to take a step or more before being able to hit the ball.
YES LET – if the Referee is uncertain about any of these elements (a fallback to be used sparingly!)
One last thing
Finally, in answer to an often-asked question, there is no allowance in the rules for when such a situation occurs repeatedly. Just because a player’s choice of shot leads to the same scenarios over & over, each situation must be judged on its own merits. A player cannot be punished for shot selection. If punishment is due, it must be for the action that followed.
What has been outlined above are interpretations that I believe to be rules-based. However, as food for thought, I’ll put out a few questions about potential additional considerations that some might like introduced into the rules – considerations that would trip the decision to one side or the other by virtue of their stipulations. It stands to reason that the more factors a Referee is allowed to consider – the easier will be the decision. Here are a few:
- Currently, the choice of shot that the player has selected that leads to the interference is simply, as stated above, not a consideration. It’s what has happened afterwards, at the moment of interference that matters. Each scenario is judged on its elements at that time. So – what would you think of introducing a clause into the rules that required the Referee to look at and potentially punish (either with a stroke or a pre-stroke warning) a player who selected similar repeated returns that lead to interference – essentially hitting shots that he or she cannot clear from?
- Currently, if a player plays a poor return that puts his opponent in a position of advantage, and this position subsequently sets up an ‘access’ interference situation when it is that player’s turn to be striker again – that is not a consideration in decision making. The last paragraph of Guideline 11 precludes punishing the striker for that – even though our primitive instincts tell us to do it. The only thing the Referee needs to consider is if, “but for the interference, the player would have been able to get to and play the ball”. What would you say to introducing a stricter demand on that striker because of that previous poor shot – perhaps introducing a requirement that indeed, in these cases, the striker must go around the interference? Or alternately, in cases of uncertainty about the ability of this striker to make a good return (which ‘de facto’ requires a let), such uncertainty would now not favour the striker and so a No Let would be mandated?
- Currently, if a player plays returns that repeatedly lead to interference situations (essentially the plural version of bullet #1 above) – that is not a consideration. Each of those scenarios is judged separately. What about introducing a ‘weighting’ concept to attribute partial points (or soccer-like yellow warning flags) for repeated poor shot selection or causing position of advantage interference scenarios?
- Currently, a player who is wrong footed, essentially causing interference (not ‘creating’ the interference) by having taken the wrong access to the ball by mistake, is held to no higher a standard of effort to recover and play the ball than for non-wrong-footing interference. What about changing that and demanding more effort than normal from the striker who has got himself or herself into a wrong footing situation?