Refs: Costly Stormers lesson for Sharks?

    2016-04-25 21:26

    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 officialdom.

    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 match-day process.

    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 champions.

    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 overall.

    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 Eden-Whaitiri.

    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

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