Johannesburg - SANZAR has named the match officials for the opening four rounds of the Super 14 competition, which kicks off on February 13.
Australian Matt Goddard will take charge of the opening match between the Highlanders and Brumbies in Dunedin while Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand will whistle the meeting between the Western Force and the Blues in Perth on the same evening.
Craig Joubert of South Africa is in charge of a local derby when he handles the match between the Lions and the Cheetahs in Johannesburg to complete the last of the opening day fixtures.
The appointments are the first to be made following SANZAR's ground-breaking decision in November to establish a panel founded on merit before nationality. Referees are no longer prevented from refereeing their countrymen in opposition to another nation. The move was made to ensure that whenever possible, the best players would be refereed by the best officials.
There are four instances in the opening round of matches where the principle of ability has over-ridden merit. "We are very excited about this new initiative," said Andre Watson, SANZAR's manager of referees. "The coaches and players have asked to be refereed by the best and that is what we are giving them."
The referees are drawn from an initial panel of nine - which will be reviewed during the season - although Test duties, injuries and other factors may see a reserve panel being drawn on.
The high demand for SANZAR referees for the Six Nations impacts on the availability of the panel with southern hemisphere officials taking charge of seven of the 15 Six Nations matches. That opens the way in round two for referees from the shadow and reserve panels to press their case for elevation. Paul Marks and Ian Smith - both of Australia - have appointments in New Zealand in round two.
Merit Panel (alphabetical order): Stuart Dickinson (Australia), Matt Goddard (Australia), Marius Jonker (South Africa), Craig Joubert (South Africa), Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand), Mark Lawrence (South Africa), James Leckie (Australia), Steve Walsh (New Zealand)*.
Shadow Panel (alphabetical order):Paul Marks (Australia), Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Ian Smith (Australia).
Reserve Bench (alphabetical order): Phillip Bosch (South Africa), Keith Brown (New Zealand), Vinny Munro (New Zealand), Nathan Pearce (Australia).
*Note: Steve Walsh was not considered for selection at this point for the first four weeks of Super 14 due to a personal employment matter. The NZRU and Walsh will not make any further comment on the matter at this time.