Referee could 'bite' Sharks
Christo Buchner and J.J. Harmse
Johannesburg and Pretoria - The Sharks will have to overcome a great deal more than just a hectic travel schedule when they play the Crusaders in their Super Rugby quarter-final in Nelson on Saturday.
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The South Africans should also brace themselves for New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence. Of the eight Sharks matches that Lawrence has handled since 2006, they have won only three.
The only time they had to deal with him earlier this year was the game against the Bulls in Durban, which they also lost.
Lawrence (41), a school principal, will also be the referee in the Super Rugby final of 9 July.
SANZAR game manager Lyndon Bray announced on Wednesday that Lawrence had - according to the organisation's selectors - consistently produced the best refereeing performances over the past six months and was therefore appointed to referee the final.
Craig Joubert, who handled last year's final between the Bulls and Stormers, and the world's most experienced Test referee Jonathan Kaplan, will referee the two semi-finals.
Joubert will be in action in Cape Town for the semi-final hosted by the Stormers, while Kaplan will officiate the Reds' playoff in Brisbane.
Lawrence and another Kiwi, Chris Pollock, will be in action this weekend in the first round of playoff games.
Last year the Stormers were angry about Joubert's refereeing performance in the Super14 final in Soweto, which they lost to the Bulls.
Meanwhile, All Black coach Graham Henry could easily have had Lawrence in mind when he slammed the fitness levels of referees this week.
It is believed that Lawrence failed the fitness tests that the Super Rugby referees underwent.
Henry said that the basic errors referees were making were ridiculous.
"It happens because they get tired and hit the wall later in games and can no longer apply their minds properly. They run out of steam and lose it," Henry said this week.
He said it was amazing how many tries were scored from forward passes just because the referee and his assistants cannot keep up with play.
Henry also feels defending teams are allowed to be disruptive at the breakdowns because the referee is too far from play to see what is happening.
There was concern in the Sharks' ranks this week about the role that the referee could play in the Crusaders game.
With the game set to be played at a high tempo, the teams cannot afford a referee whose fitness levels are suspect.
The Crusaders are masters of exploiting the laws to their advantage and, for example, playing on the off-side line.
Lawrence must have his finger on the pulse throughout and keep up with the action so that he does not miss transgressions.
Henry went as far as saying that the time may have come for substitute referees to be considered if it becomes clear that the official who started the game is running out of steam in the second half.
Lawrence handled a Sharks game for the first time in 2006 when they lost to the Waratahs in Sydney. After that the Sharks lost to the Brumbies in 2007 when he was the referee.
In 2008 they lost to the Brumbies and Waratahs again, while in 2009 the Sharks won the three games in which Lawrence was the 31st person on the field. That was against the Chiefs, Western Force and Brumbies.
While Lawrence did not handle any of the Sharks' games last year, they walked off the field as losers when he officiated against the Bulls.