Refs: Costly Stormers lesson for Sharks?
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Their Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs objective still
fairly tenuous at this stage, the Sharks need to be mindful of avoiding a
tumble into the “Stormers trap” of three years ago regarding attitude to
Increasingly, the Sharks are taking on a reputation in 2016
for being among the most strident and perhaps hot-headed outfits when it comes
to digesting decisions of referees or the other officials involved in the
There has already been the flashpoint of head coach Gary
Gold being fined for use of “crude and insulting language” against television
match official Johan Greeff during the Sharks’ home defeat to the Crusaders.
Subsequently, in at least two separate games, captain Tendai
Mtawarira has engaged the on-field referee with a greater degree of indignation
and even downright accusation than is customary for Super Rugby skippers.
The latest instance was on Friday against the Highlanders in
Dunedin, when the normally soft-spoken prop all but branded referee Ben O’Keefe
a cheat – he suggested that by yellow-carding JP Pietersen (a second Sharks
player to visit the sinbin) the official was effectively evening things up for
his earlier decision to permanently banish Jason Emery for his dangerous high
challenge on Willie le Roux.
It did seem a little uncharitable on O’Keefe, who had
earlier correctly and courageously overruled the apparent desire by his TMO to
only censure Emery by way of a yellow card: the home side being reduced to 14
men for 67 minutes undoubtedly had an influence on the Sharks’ 15-14 triumph,
praiseworthy though the very outcome on paper was against the defending
Popular pundit Nick Mallett could hardly be faulted for
lamenting that Mtawarira was guilty of “haranguing” and that a “culture of
blame” appears to be taking root in Sharks circles.
If that is indeed the case, it could prove to be something
that ends up biting them on the proverbial bum.
You need look no further than the 2013 season for a damaging
precedent involving compatriots the Stormers, who finished an agonising one
place shy of the playoffs phase (as constituted as the time) in seventh
They had a series of often rightful grievances against
refereeing or “booth” decisions that year, but you also got a powerful sense
that every time normally temperate head coach Allister Coetzee -- recently
appointed the Springbok mastermind -- had a public stab at officialdom, more
and more “50-50” calls only appeared to go against the Stormers who became
branded series whingers and the like in some sections of the competition-wide
press and on often unforgiving social media.
Matters came to a head at Palmerston North during that
campaign, when the Stormers pipped the Hurrricanes 18-16, and (never
specifically disclosed) members of their broad, pitch-side squad and staff entourage
that day were cited for verbal abuse of assistant referee Sheldon
The Stormers were slapped with a fine of almost R230,000 for
“misconduct” and “bringing the game into disrepute”.
There were further controversies over refereeing in the
remainder of the four-match Australasian tour … and perhaps not without
significance, the Capetonians were narrowly beaten in all three games, the
major cause of their failure to make the “KO” cut.
From the relatively safe platform of his post-season
assessment with the Cape media – although maybe he was already doing his 2014
campaign few special favours? – Coetzee could still not contain himself over
officials: “I am not shy to say that … two games we were unlucky and poor
decisions made by the referees actually cost us a position in the playoffs.”
As much as there will always be referees and other officials
who manage to remain thoroughly impartial and even-handed and treat every match
on its merits, it is difficult to believe that at least some element of
pettiness or covert “vengeance” doesn’t lurk in refereeing circles.
Let’s just say that “mental notes” are in all likelihood
made in referees’ dressing rooms whenever a Super Rugby side appears especially
cantankerous or rebellious in their communication with them.
There is a fine line between the right to seek clarification
from referees by captains over decisions made in the heat of battle, and
unsubtle, lingering demonstrations of distaste as evidenced from Mtawarira.
Astute diplomacy is a key function of a captain, and by
extension the coach.
Are the Sharks boxing cleverly enough in rapport with
referees this season?
I’m inclined to think not …
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing