Spare a thought for referees

2012-02-28 10:12

In the light of the latest law changes, the specific emphasis on certain laws and the introduction of a few new laws, one can expect referees to take a few weeks to adapt.

Some are able to do so almost immediately while others take a while longer. I guess, just like with players, you also get elite and average referees.

Whether we’re fans or critics, the tendency is to zoom in on the “mistakes” referees make when our teams lose or when one of “our players” ends up on the wrong side of the whistle. 

This is to be expected because it has always been an essential part of rugby’s unique dynamics and I believe that referees accept it that way. So while we are acutely aware of the often “inevitable oversights” of the referee, we still love to ridicule and criticise them nonetheless.

On the exceptional end of the local referee’s panel we have Mark Lawrence and Jonathan Kaplan (and of course Craig Joubert) who handled the Lions v Cheetahs and Bulls v Sharks games respectively. 

Lawrence, since his omission from the Rugby World Cup panel last year, has significantly upped his game, sticking literally to the letter of the law. On Saturday he awarded 30 penalties and explained each and every one of them in great detail. At one point he even quoted the paragraph of the law he applied. One of the Sunday newspapers “criticised” him for being responsible for the stop-start nature of the game. The alternative of ignoring certain transgressions in order to facilitate better continuity may result in heavier criticism if his oversight results in points for the team which should have been penalised. It should be obvious that the latter is not an option since consistency is the one thing we all demand of referees.

Being a referee is a very difficult and thankless task. They have to make decisions in the space of one or two seconds, sometimes even determining the outcome of matches that may result in income or loss of revenue running into millions of Rands.
Early on in the Bulls v Sharks match Kaplan penalised Bulls skipper Pierre Spies for obstruction at an attacking lineout. I felt it was too harsh a sanction as he was supporting the jumper and was only marginally positioned between the opposition and the jumper. However, from the angle that Kaplan saw the incident it looked as if he was in front of the jumper, obstructing the opposition, though only marginally so. The point is that referees make honest mistakes, based on what they see while we have the luxury of review on the super slow motion replay. 

Nevertheless, in the same game assistant referee Pro Legoete committed the cardinal sin when he suggested that Zane Kirchner stepped outside his 22 (kicking for touch) when alerted by a section of the crowd. The slow motion showed that Kirchner did not step outside his 22 and an embarrassed Legoete apologised to the Bulls. He adjudicated on something he did not see - he guessed.
This kind of conduct is unacceptable at this level of officiating and it is what makes referees such easy targets for criticism.
Playing advantage; joining rucks from the side; rolling away or not; daylight or not; did the tackled player release the ball or not; was the player on his feet when he played the ball or not? The referee is expected to “answer” all these questions in the space of a few seconds and do it correctly. The poor guy has to spot, assess, and decide in an instant. Not something I would want to do week in and week out and under the scrutiny of close to a million people every time!

There was another incident that deserves mention. It was a TMO (Shaun Veldsman) decision during the Stormers v Hurricanes game when Motu Matu'u scored what could have been a game-changing try, but which after almost 10 slow motion replays, was disallowed. 

I believe it was a try. In my opinion Veldsman fell foul of the fact that he saw the ball being lost forward after the “grounding” on the tryline. Matu’u was in control of the ball when he crossed the line and still had his hand on the ball when it was grounded on the line. This makes it a try in my book. However, as he grounded the ball, he lost it forward (in the process). Unfortunately the visual of the ball going forward after the grounding, induced Veldsman to disallow the try. So unlike Legoete who adjudicated on something he did not see, Veldsman made the “wrong ruling” (in my view) based on having seen too much (what happened to the ball almost immediately after it was grounded).
Referees and their assistants are a very crucial part of the game and while they make their fair share of mistakes, it tends not to be deliberate, but primarily because of the myriad of laws they have to apply. The correct application of the laws depends on how the referee “interprets the specific situation” playing itself out in front of him. The dynamic of each of these “situations” are unique almost every time. Therein lies the challenge for the modern day rugby referee.

So in the coming weeks when things start to heat up and referees slip up every now and then, try to remember the very difficult circumstances under which they have to interpret and apply the laws of the game in order to keep the contest fair and competitive for the players while at the same time entertaining for the fans and spectators.

Just spare a thought for the poor referee.

Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player and current Afrikaans rugby commentator on SuperSport.

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.


  • Jason - 2012-02-28 10:22

    Have you put any thought to the fact that maybe the ref was right and you are just saying!

      Lionel - 2012-02-28 10:28

      Well said Boet,Gary will never admit that he was wrong!!!!Him and JJ Harmse are like brothers with regards to the Bulls!!

      Bulldozer - 2012-02-28 11:49

      And Marius Jonker is like a brother to the Stormers.

      Thomas - 2012-02-29 00:09

      The startling fact is while the refs are now trying to get the technical laws at the breakdown right, they are still missing the basic knock- on and foreward passes!!! The average supporter can get passed the 50/50 call did he support his own body weight or not, but a try being scored after a shocking foreward pass with thee pairs of eyes missing it is unacceptible!!!!

  • Lionel - 2012-02-28 10:30

    The shocking assistant refs from Saturdays game between Stormers/Canes was inexcusable,how many times was the wrong player penalised!!!

      Bulldozer - 2012-02-28 11:50

      The shocking ref from Saturdays game between Stormers/Canes was inexcusable,how many times was the Hurricanes players penalised!!!

      Ian - 2012-02-28 15:06

      Bulldozer, Probably not enough, considering the number of offences they were forced to commit to stop the Stormers.

  • Bigrp - 2012-02-28 10:43

    Gary, I suggest you do proper research before writing an article...there was in fact no law changes prior to the start of this season, referees were only instructed to concentrate on a few things, e.g people sealing off at ruck time. In general, I do agree with you though, it is a tough job at any level...I ref school and club games, and we don't have the luxury of assistant referees (often) and TMO's (never). We ref it as we see it, and will not always get it right!

      goyougoodthing - 2012-02-28 17:13

      You are right, the only thing that has changed is a few areas to concentrate on. Interestingly, our head of referees decided to tell the refs at their coaching clinic, that they 'should apply the law the same everywhere on the field'. How does a collapsed scrum on the halfway line have the same impact as one on the 5m line? The other problem is that the referees seem to think we are here to see them and listen to their clever banter. Not so! Ref and move on.

      Bigrp - 2012-02-28 18:48

      @goyougoodthing...according to the laws there are no distinction between a transgression on the halfway line or 5 metres from the goal line, so technically speaking Andre Watson is correct. This issue about the "red zone" the commentators like to mention, you will also not find anywhere in the laws.

  • Gareth - 2012-02-28 11:02

    Did You even see the forward pass befor the Hurricanes try? And how many infringements did Kaplan miss, the Sharks might not have desirved the win. But Kaplan was NOT consistent at all and was probably the worst Ref of the weekend (as consistancy COULD have proven a different outcome). So it works both ways and YOU still only see half of what is going on and then raise your opinion. Stop watching rugby with one eye closed. I agree with you with regard to what you are saying about refs being human... But NOT your comments and opinions on everything els you have said about the past weekend's games. GOOOO STORMERS!!

      Bulldozer - 2012-02-28 11:51

      Did You even see the forward pass before the Sharks try?

      Gareth - 2012-02-28 15:44

      I did yes, and i never said it was right. However, it was justice for all the calls Kaplan Missed where the bulls should have been penalised.

  • Claude - 2012-02-28 12:02

    Referees that guess about what happened should not be in the game and rugby writers that want to criticize as if they know everything and are always correct in their judgement should first go and try to referee at a high level themselves.

  • rondee.scherman - 2012-02-28 12:42

    Gary, ever thought why Lawrence was ommitted from the World Cup? Saturday nights mess was the reason. Lawrence does not have the temperament to be a good refree. He does have the ability to mess up a possible good game. Furthermoer his attitude stinks. He should have retired from rugby all together and spared is "his Saturday night show". In comparison to Kaplan he was extremly poor. If you maintain that Lawrence was right in the way he messed up the game then you should fault all the referees on the way the blew the other games. You might have the correct figure but in any one phase of rugby a ref can give any number of penalties. Some of them very technical. A last word about Pro - he is not even a good Varsity Cup ref let alone a linesman.It is people like him who gives officials a bad name.

  • Johan - 2012-02-28 13:05

    "I guess, just like with players, you also get elite and average rugby journalists."

  • Tony - 2012-02-28 13:39

    Its all about integrity and the 2 gents in question Lawrence and Kaplan have it! They would not be in the positions they are if that ingrediant was missing. Its as simple as that. Fuirthermore they are only human. The only way to get perfect decisions is to cut out human error and that would be by introducing tv reffing. I have to smile sometimes; (armchair) critics watch an incident over and over with the aid of TV. If a 'poor' decision is made and it effects their team they throw their toys. And they suddenly become experts to boot. It all evens out in the end so tip your hat to our refs, they are the best in world.

      Gareth - 2012-02-28 15:50

      Some calls are just too blatant to miss, however our refs miss them! And every ref blows the rules differently! E.g. the 'gate' at the ruck and collapsing(putting a hand or elbow on the grownd) the scrum. Some cases it is CREAR whose fault it was, but plenty occasions it cannot be called!

  • Sportmal - 2012-02-28 13:50

    For the past 2 seasons very little law changes has been made, only referees being told to focus more on certain aspects. The rucks & mauls situation will always be tough to call, as you say, the ref has but a second or 2 to judge on 4 different aspects. I do have 1 very BIG problem with the current laws and that is when it comes to scrum time, this "one for me and one for you" penalty count regarding the scrums is getting more than a little annoying. Why on earth would an attacking team collapse the scrum? Except for the obvious "breaking the bind" from props, it is most of the time not even possible to determine from the replay who's fault it is. I don't have the solution since I don't work for the IRB and I don't get paid to do it, but hell, let the people who actually does get paid to do it come up with a solution.

      Gareth - 2012-02-28 15:52

      Fully agree with you it is the worst rule in the history of rugby.

  • louis.langenhoven - 2012-02-28 16:14

    I heard a rumour that they wanted to bring an appeal system into rugby also where each team get one appeal against a decision just like in cricket. Then someone worked out that the Boks vs Oz game blown by Mark Lawrence would have taken around 2 days!

  • Deon - 2012-02-28 16:27

    Yes Pro was a bit off his game. The other try of Joe also looked like a try.

  • John Murray McKay - 2012-03-01 13:59

    Kaplin is an awful ref! One of our worst! I would take an ozzie over him any day of the year. Maybe you should do something else? Reffing is not your strong point old chap

  • Kevin - 2012-03-04 16:43

    the new laws at the breakdown are pathetic simply slowing down the game,the game is not allowed to flow who ever came up with this rubbish needs his head read,the refs just blow and blow joke!!!!! yes the refs have a difficult task however it is made more difficult by adding stupid laws,message to all rugby players take it easy do not be aggressive stand back and let the opposition take control,or let bryce lawrence referee the game

  • Byron - 2012-03-06 14:14

    The referee now has more impact on the game than the players and as a result the game has become a farce. I stick to games where maybe an occasional decision will be wrong but the game itself is not solely dependant on one man. Tennis, Soccer and cricket are not subject to the type of "Interpretaition" that an entire rugby result rest on. The game has become a joke and after 24 years of fanatical support I now refuse to watch the referee.

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