Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Sharks chief executive John Smit may have pulled off a national masterstroke, whether intended or inadvertent, by the temperate way he responded to officiating injustices against his team in the last round of Super Rugby.
The former Springbok captain has been a publicly beleaguered character to some extent considering the Sharks’ six-game losing sequence and lowly status in the competition this year, but his measured – yet shrewd -- response to a Twitter plea that he seek an official inquiry into the officiating of their match against the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday appeared to pay solid dividends later.
Smit’s immediate response (@JohnSmit123) to the tweet from a journalist was diplomatic, when he could so easily have joined the general mood of ire instead, and placed the ball firmly in SANZAR’s court: “I’m sure SANZAR leadership is strong enough 2 do something before we need 2 inquire, I hope!”
Not long afterwards, the organisation’s refereeing supremo Lyndon Bray did appear to act positively, candidly admitting that “some basic standards (were) simply not upheld” by officials last weekend.
In the fallout, Australian referee Rohan Hoffmann – who seems to have become new enemy No 1 among whistlemen to South Africans after his particularly bizarre showing in the Sharks’ 33-18 reverse – and television match official George Ayoub paid a price in terms of postings in the next round: Hoffmann is curtailed to assistant refereeing status in the Force v Highlanders match and Ayoub has no duty at all.
Meanwhile, Bray also demoted New Zealand’s Glen Jackson and stood down TMO Vinny Munro after their likely errors affecting the outcome of the high-on-the-log derby between the Hurricanes and Chiefs.
One no-try decision against the Chiefs in the dying minutes – they ended 22-18 losers – was the red-letter incident of that encounter, but in Sydney even many neutral or Waratahs-partial people felt an array of calls from the Hoffmann-Ayoub alliance went consistently against the labouring tourists from Durban.
It is most unusual to hear television commentator and former New South Wales and Wallabies hooker favourite Phil Kearns, for example, make an emphatic statement in favour of ‘Tahs opponents, but he did so to a global audience here: “The Sharks were really stiffed by some poor decisions.”
Back in the SuperSport studios in Randburg, another globetrotting ex-NSW and Australia star, David Campese, branded Hoffmann’s performance “a joke” which is about as blunt as you can get in rugby parlance.
Interestingly, the sense of injustice against the Sharks was also picked up on “across the ditch” in New Zealand.
In main national newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, writer Dylan Cleaver made generous mention of it in an enterprising, diary-style exercise (nzherald.co.nz) in which he sat through all 480 minutes (six matches) of the latest Super Rugby round despite the insomnia-testing various time zones involved.
Among his live notes were these: “Hoffmann (is) slaughtering the Sharks. It is so obviously lop-sided that even the ultimate home-town caller (Kearns) is picking up on it.
Calling it all “high farce” he also admitted: “I’m feeling irrationally angry on behalf of the Sharks, who I’ve never (previously) had much time for.
“I really do feel like South African teams get shafted when they come to Australasia. Perhaps it’s some sort of cosmic karma for the refereeing atrocities touring teams (had to) put up with during the apartheid years, but you can understand why they feel like upping sticks sometimes and playing a competition in their own time zone.”
Those are not unassertive statements... and appear to sum up a mounting swell of hitherto unusual Antipodean sympathy for the SA cause abroad in Super Rugby more generally.
Perhaps there has been some merit on prior occasions to suggestions that South Africans should “stop bleating” (and the like) about officialdom supposedly conspiring against them in overseas games.
Yet while South African referees tend to still get mostly favourable reviews or at the very least be exempt from major criticism from the Australasian climes in the SANZAR grouping, there just seems to be increasing sentiment that our teams do, indeed, get diddled abroad more than they should.
Stuart Dickinson, Bryce Lawrence, Paddy O’Brien... these are names from those parts of the planet who once routinely aggrieved South African fans and analysts, and now Hoffmann’s can perhaps be added to that dubious hall of “fame”.
Never forget also that in 1999 a mini-scandal erupted when emails came to light implicating Aussie refs in a collaboration to “teach the Japies a lesson”.
Am I wrong in sensing that even Australasians are starting to realise a trend, and feeling for the South African indignation?
Smit’s clever little Twitter nudge led to at least reasonably decisive and acceptably fast remedial action from SANZAR.
Maybe this is optimistic, but I just fancy that South Africa’s Super Rugby teams may begin to feel a kinder, fairer approach from Aussie and Kiwi officials as a dossier of discontent mounts.
At the very least, we know – and they know - they are under strong scrutiny.
That’s some kind of result...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing