Johannesburg - A few years ago, a Maties hooker prefaced the first scrum of a Varsity Cup game against Tuks with a torrent of verbal abuse aimed at his opposite number.
“Jaaaaa! Jou f***** Engelsman!” he screamed maniacally as the two packs of forwards squared up. “Language!” interjected the referee, to which the immediate response from the chastised player was a choirboy: “Sorry, sir!”
This is proof positive that referees were once the law on a rugby field, not the addled lap poodles they are becoming in Super Rugby. Paddy O’Brien, Andre Watson, Jonathan Kaplan, Alain Rolland and even Wayne Barnes were all sole arbiters on the pitch, their confidence bordering on cocky even when they were clearly wrong.
Looking at recent years and this season in particular, referees are again copping it from bastard columnists like this one, TV pundits and the rugby public alike, mostly because indecision has crept into how they handle games.
Forget the inconsistent calls on dangerous play – sometimes you get the impression that a South African has to be killed for the referee to reach for a card – the bigger issue for me is the fact that it almost always looks like it’s neither the referee nor his two assistants who are in charge of the game.
The Television Match Official (TMO) seems to be the new bigwig – an almost nameless, faceless official who can put a stop to everything by simply uttering “Check! Check!” from a darkened room somewhere in the stadium.
Brought into the game to enhance the referee’s decision making, the TMO has only succeeded in making the poor bastards out in the middle that much more addled and gun-shy in their conviction about what they may or may not have seen.
The obvious reason referees deferred, if not downright outsourced, the big calls to the TMOs is the fear of being proven wrong on the big screen. Mindful of this, most TMOs have actually sought to use this against the man in the middle, instead of as part of the tools at his disposal to help him make the right call.
From the many interactions I’ve had with referees, I have found them to be engaging, well-schooled in the nature of human behaviour, mature even when they are still young, rational and imbued with a healthy sense of humour and self deprecation – you need it if you’re getting told how useless you are every week.
But what we miss as a result is how competitive they can be among each other. I remember a colleague texting a South African referee during the 2007 World Cup to congratulate him for running touch for “the best-looking referee in the world” [Steve Walsh] to rile him.
That’s why it’s dangerous to assume that all TMOs, who often are made up of referees who weren’t deemed good enough out there in the middle, are purely there to help instead of trying to prove themselves capable all over again at the referee’s expense.
I don’t know how often I’ve listened to former Aussie ref George Ayoub, whom I think is one of the worst cases of biased refereeing, almost rummaging in the TMO room for excuses not to award a try to a team that’s not Australian.
My one proposed solution would be that maybe the powers that be take a different approach when making their annual intake of would-be referees. Maybe they should run psychometric tests on the hopefuls and divide them into dominant personalities and more studious types.
The more dominant personalities would be groomed specifically to be referees out in the middle, while the studious types would be exposed to the more technical training with a view to having them become TMOs.
Because they would be fundamentally different, both in outlook and as per their bosses’ evaluation, maybe they can stop looking at each other as direct competition.
. I thought long and hard about writing about the racism allegations levelled at Roodepoort Rugby Club’s Under-21s and their parents. But after 18 years of writing about incidents that seem to boomerang with nary an action being taken against the perpetrators, I thought maybe I should waste the words on something else.
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