Johannesburg - Top South African referee Craig Joubert has been rewarded with his first Vodacom Super 14 final, and the Bulls, of all people are rather happy with this.
While there may be some wry smiles when the appointment was announced – especially as the only two games the Bulls have lost this season have been reffed by Joubert – the Bulls made all the right noises when asked about the influence of the 31st man on the field this Saturday.
Joubert was particularly harsh on the Bulls at the breakdown in the game against the Blues – pinning Deon Stegmann five times and virtually reffing them out of the game in the first half, so much that they never recovered.
While it is true that champion teams should recover from any setback, the Bulls were off on the day and even though nobody will say it publicly, privately Joubert had a long session with the Bulls after the game and according to one or two team sources even admitted getting it wrong on one or two occasions.
The Reds game was no different as the Bulls again suffered at the breakdown and lost a game where they were outclassed.
It could be just coincidence that Joubert had the whistle for both games, as the Bulls looked jaded and had very little ball in both, looking far from the complete outfit they did in the rest of the competition.
Still, there will be more than just the odd mention of the officials in team talks this week, especially with the margin for error so small in a one-off 80 minute final.
Bulls captain Victor Matfield said there were no problems with Joubert, and it was up to the Bulls to make sure they didn’t give him anything to penalise them for.
“We’ve got a very good relationship with him and met with him after both games, receiving good feedback from him. He was also the referee at our pre-season game that helped us so we’re happy with him in the middle,” Matfield said. “The big thing is that it is up to us to win the game and in those two games we made it easy for him to penalise us for mistakes we made. We have to be much more disciplined this week.”
While at one stage even the SA Referees association was pointing out flanker Deon Stegmann’s indiscretions in those games, and it was felt that he was being victimised, the star flanker bounced back with some exceptional displays that other referees were fine with – including two big matches against the Crusaders, one of which where he overshadowed All Black captain Richie McCaw.
Stegmann’s contribution in the final match at Loftus Versfeld was exceptional at the breakdown and he has all the hallmarks similar to his long-time friend Heinrich Brussow. And adding to that, it is natural for openside flankers to live on the edge of the law, meaning that sometimes they will be pinned.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke believes the young flanker has sorted out any problems he might have. In fact, the coach even went as far as suggesting that Joubert’s harsh calls were “a favour” for the Bulls.
“As Victor said, we had great feedback from the officials and we know we were at fault. We adjusted and in fact, Craig did us some favours in forcing us to become more accurate at the breakdown. We needed to look at our decision making and we have to be positive this weekend.”
Either way the pressure is on, not only for the two sets of forwards facing laws that are left open to interpretation, but to a referee who has proved himself the best in the Southern Hemisphere to be appointed to the final. As Ludeke rightly says, it is the team that will be more accurate on Saturday that will win. Both sides have in-form flyhalves, and rest assured, any indiscretions will be punished.