Johannesburg - As a country that spends as much time focused on the Springboks’ shortcomings as we do on those of the referees officiating them, the names alone of the officials appointed for South Africa’s Rugby Championship fixtures should leave us with hope of a decent tournament this time round.
Since readmission, all manner of referees have taken turns on the South African fans’ persona non grata list.
The grudge we hold against Australian and New Zealand referees stems from that infamous email to “get those Japies”; we’re still sore about Paul Honiss’ “play on” moment, which cost the Boks against Ireland in 2004; old Stu Dickinson was public enemy number one until that television match official decision in the 2007 World Cup final; and who can forget Bryce Lawrence for a performance so unobtrusive the 2011 World Cup quarter-final between the Boks and the Wallabies may well have not been refereed?
Of the current crop, the seemingly genial Frenchman Romain Poite – a former detective – is the man we love to hate, while New Zealander Ben O’Keeffe is working his way into our bad books.
Poite offended our delicate sensibilities five years ago when he went all Inspector Clouseau on us by failing to detect the difference between a big hit and an illegal one when Dan Carter met the business end of Bismarck du Plessis’ shoulder. He sin-binned the latter for a “dangerous tackle”.
Said yellow would lead to a red card later in the match when Du Plessis had to be rightly cautioned. Another reason we’ve never taken to him is the fact that Poite was in charge when the Boks lost to Argentina for the first time in 2015.
O’Keeffe, who specialises in making no decision when there is a flash point in a game, but overreacts when there isn’t, came to our attention last year when he didn’t card Israel Folau for dragging Dillyn Leyds by the man bun instead of tackling him in that 27-all draw in Bloemfontein.
And would you believe it, the ref who sees no evil on the pitch is an ophthalmologist off it.
Looking at this year’s Rugby Championship placements, the only one the Boks might theoretically worry about is O’Keeffe, who is in charge of their opening game against Argentina in Durban. But it’s not the kind of game that is big enough to paralyse O’Keeffe’s decision-making, nor force him into the kind of mystery offence red card he gave to the Sunwolves’ Ed Quirk last weekend.
Simply put, the Boks’ performance should take it outside his sphere of influence.
The two big games against the All Blacks will be handled by Wales’ Nigel Owens (Wellington) and Australia’s Angus Gardner (Pretoria).
Owens’ reputation as the best referee in the world may have recently convinced him to start sharing his deepest, darkest thoughts about veganism, but, thankfully, he hasn’t lost his ability to shepherd a game or a healthy scepticism of how mythical the All Blacks are supposed to be.
On his day, Gardner, who has been refereeing for 18 years despite only being 33, is as good as anyone. Gardner’s the kind of official who won’t be intimidated by Argentina or their fans in Mendoza (he’s doing that game, too), a bunch that thrives on putting heat on both the opposition and the ref by magnifying their every mistake with indignant howls.
Former player Glen Jackson has ended up with the first game against the Wallabies in Brisbane, not exactly a happy hunting ground for the Boks. As a former player, Jackson commands the respect of the players, something he supplements with a calm and authoritative ruck-side manner.
The wild card is Poite’s compatriot Jérôme Garcès, who will take charge of the game against Australia in Port Elizabeth. Given his “life is a box of chocolates” way of officiating, the only conclusion one can make is that he’s in the same WhatsApp group as his countryman.
The man who proudly says he has used the same whistle for the past 15 years was also the ref when the Boks lost to Japan during the 2015 World Cup in Brighton. But if we’re honest, apart from Garcès and O’Keeffe, the Boks should get a fair shake out of the Rugby Championship officials.
Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa