Spare a thought for referees
In the light of the latest law changes, the specific emphasis on certain laws and the introduction of a few new laws, one can expect referees to take a few weeks to adapt.
Some are able to do so almost immediately while others take a while longer. I guess, just like with players, you also get elite and average referees.
Whether we’re fans or critics, the tendency is to zoom in on the “mistakes” referees make when our teams lose or when one of “our players” ends up on the wrong side of the whistle.
This is to be expected because it has always been an essential part of rugby’s unique dynamics and I believe that referees accept it that way. So while we are acutely aware of the often “inevitable oversights” of the referee, we still love to ridicule and criticise them nonetheless.
On the exceptional end of the local referee’s panel we have Mark Lawrence and Jonathan Kaplan (and of course Craig Joubert) who handled the Lions v Cheetahs and Bulls v Sharks games respectively.
Lawrence, since his omission from the Rugby World Cup panel last year, has significantly upped his game, sticking literally to the letter of the law. On Saturday he awarded 30 penalties and explained each and every one of them in great detail. At one point he even quoted the paragraph of the law he applied. One of the Sunday newspapers “criticised” him for being responsible for the stop-start nature of the game. The alternative of ignoring certain transgressions in order to facilitate better continuity may result in heavier criticism if his oversight results in points for the team which should have been penalised. It should be obvious that the latter is not an option since consistency is the one thing we all demand of referees.
Being a referee is a very difficult and thankless task. They have to make decisions in the space of one or two seconds, sometimes even determining the outcome of matches that may result in income or loss of revenue running into millions of Rands.
Early on in the Bulls v Sharks match Kaplan penalised Bulls skipper Pierre Spies for obstruction at an attacking lineout. I felt it was too harsh a sanction as he was supporting the jumper and was only marginally positioned between the opposition and the jumper. However, from the angle that Kaplan saw the incident it looked as if he was in front of the jumper, obstructing the opposition, though only marginally so. The point is that referees make honest mistakes, based on what they see while we have the luxury of review on the super slow motion replay.
Nevertheless, in the same game assistant referee Pro Legoete committed the cardinal sin when he suggested that Zane Kirchner stepped outside his 22 (kicking for touch) when alerted by a section of the crowd. The slow motion showed that Kirchner did not step outside his 22 and an embarrassed Legoete apologised to the Bulls. He adjudicated on something he did not see - he guessed.
This kind of conduct is unacceptable at this level of officiating and it is what makes referees such easy targets for criticism.
Playing advantage; joining rucks from the side; rolling away or not; daylight or not; did the tackled player release the ball or not; was the player on his feet when he played the ball or not? The referee is expected to “answer” all these questions in the space of a few seconds and do it correctly. The poor guy has to spot, assess, and decide in an instant. Not something I would want to do week in and week out and under the scrutiny of close to a million people every time!
There was another incident that deserves mention. It was a TMO (Shaun Veldsman) decision during the Stormers v Hurricanes game when Motu Matu'u scored what could have been a game-changing try, but which after almost 10 slow motion replays, was disallowed.
I believe it was a try. In my opinion Veldsman fell foul of the fact that he saw the ball being lost forward after the “grounding” on the tryline. Matu’u was in control of the ball when he crossed the line and still had his hand on the ball when it was grounded on the line. This makes it a try in my book. However, as he grounded the ball, he lost it forward (in the process). Unfortunately the visual of the ball going forward after the grounding, induced Veldsman to disallow the try. So unlike Legoete who adjudicated on something he did not see, Veldsman made the “wrong ruling” (in my view) based on having seen too much (what happened to the ball almost immediately after it was grounded).
Referees and their assistants are a very crucial part of the game and while they make their fair share of mistakes, it tends not to be deliberate, but primarily because of the myriad of laws they have to apply. The correct application of the laws depends on how the referee “interprets the specific situation” playing itself out in front of him. The dynamic of each of these “situations” are unique almost every time. Therein lies the challenge for the modern day rugby referee.
So in the coming weeks when things start to heat up and referees slip up every now and then, try to remember the very difficult circumstances under which they have to interpret and apply the laws of the game in order to keep the contest fair and competitive for the players while at the same time entertaining for the fans and spectators.
Just spare a thought for the poor referee.
Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player and current Afrikaans rugby commentator on SuperSport.
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