Gary Boshoff

It isn't easy being a referee!

2015-03-24 14:44
Sport24 columnist Gary Boshoff (File)

In my last column I mistakenly attributed the initial selection of Pierre Spies on the wing, to Heyneke Meyer. At the time Meyer was the Bulls’ Super Rugby coach. Subsequent to the publishing of the column I was informed by one of the Springbok coach’s management team that while he did select Spies on the wing, it was indeed on the player’s request. I unreservedly apologise to Meyer for the misrepresentation.

While watching the Sharks v Chiefs and Waratahs v Brumbies Super Rugby games over the weekend, I was once again reminded of how difficult and stressful it is to be a referee. 

More often than not we blame referees for making poor decisions, not seeing the obvious and of late, for being too scared to make any decision at all. The truth is, referees are an integral and irreplaceable part of the game and even John Lennon could not imagine our beloved game without it. So here’s the thing: I have made peace with this and accept that referee’s decisions are sometimes unfair, sometimes controversial and sometimes even inexplicable, but that in most cases it is not intentional but that it ensues because of the unique dynamics of the game. Add to that the scrutiny of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers and one can begin to understand why the pressure is getting the better of the referees (and TMOs).

It goes without saying that the gentlemen and ladies that take up this noble service, deserve all the respect and support they can get, especially since referee numbers have dwindled over the last few years. At one point I contemplated the idea of becoming a referee myself, but thankfully, never got around to taking that first step. So I would like to proceed with caution as I reflect on the two situations that unfolded over the weekend and which illustrate just how difficult it is to be an international referee in the high paced, high stakes environment of the modern game. In the one situation the world’s top referee deserted his instinct and folded under the pressure of the home crowd and captain, while in the second situation, the TMO ignored an obvious and dangerous red card offence just to be overruled by the on-field referee and assistant referee. 

The first situation is the call that was made by Craig Joubert in the Brumbies/Waratahs game on Sunday morning. Joubert adjudged Scott Fardy to have knocked the ball forward when he attempted to intercept a pass during a Brumbies attack on the Waratahs’ line. What he saw and what his instincts told him in the moment was that Fardy did not deliberately knock the ball down to prevent a try, but that he actually made an attempt to gather the ball. In fact, that was the exact words he used in his subsequent response to queries from the Brumbies captain. What followed was bizarre in that after about a minute of complaining from the Brumbies and the crowd (after they had a look at the replay on the big screen), Joubert (now feeling the pressure from the home team) called on the TMO to review the decision. Having looked at it again he changed his original decision and gave Fardy a yellow card.

The world’s best referee wilted under the pressure of the crowd, players and the TMO, who himself did not show enthusiastic support for Joubert’s initial decision. The point is, it has become extremely stressful and difficult for referees to function optimally at all times in the modern game. The atmosphere in this highly-charged Aussie derby was tense throughout and it eventually took its toll on the referee.

The next situation was in the Sharks/Chiefs game when Frans Steyn was red carded for a tip tackle on Aaron Cruden, presently (in my opinion) the best flyhalf in the world. What was supposed to have been a clear-cut decision became a controversial one when the TMO, former Test referee, Marius Jonker, inexplicably differed from the referee and his on-field assistant on whether the tip-tackle was a red card offence.  The referee, to his credit, applied the correct protocol when he made his initial ruling of the red card, namely, that Steyn lifted Cruden off his feet, took him through the horizontal and then proceeded to aggressively drive him into the ground with the player landing violently on his neck and head. This was showed repeatedly in slow motion. There was no doubt in my mind that it was a red card offence and that Steyn would be sent off. Cruden was lucky to escape with no serious injuries. The referee, as is nowadays the protocol, asked Jonker (TMO) for a recommendation. To everyone’s surprise (the referee and his assistant included) he suggested a yellow card due to “momentum” that might have been caused by Marcel Coetzee and Cobus Reinach, who were in close proximity to the tackle situation. Notwithstanding this, the slow motion showed very clearly that it was Steyn that committed the foul by lifting Cruden off the ground and as such he deserved to get red- carded. How Marius Jonker could have come to a different conclusion is still a mystery to me.

That the red card against Steyn was expunged by a judicial hearing on Monday, March 23, due primarily to the “involvement” of Coetzee and Reinach, sounds more like a technical/legal compromise than Steyn being found not guilty of having executed an extreme spear tackle. 

It remains the primary task of referees to ensure that the game of rugby is played in a safe and fair environment, based on mutual respect between officials and players. Referees deserve all the respect in the world for the sometimes thankless task that they perform. However, at the professional level of the game, referees are measured against high standards of performance and when they don’t measure up it is our job as commentators, spectators, pundits and officials to speak out so as to ensure that the governing systems, laws and management structures of the game are continuously reviewed and improved for the benefit of the players and ultimately the game of rugby at large.

Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player (1984-1986)

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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