The IRB needs to improve the communication between international coaches and referees if the subjective officiating of an ELV-driven game is ever to prosper.
It was inevitable. As soon as the words left Peter de Villiers’s mouth the IRB put the disciplinary knives to the sharpener. The criticism of Matt Goddard was indirect, but it was enough to warrant a backlash from referee chief Paddy O’Brien at the IRB.
The poor performance from the Boks aside, it wasn’t hard to see why they were angry with Goddard. Victor Matfield lost his cool with the ref after he allowed the All Blacks to get away with numerous transgressions at the breakdown. In the post-match press conference, the Boks never attacked Goddard directly, but their disappointment was clear.
On Monday, De Villiers made a valid suggestion that perhaps the IRB should take to heart. Why not give the two opposing coaches and captains access to the referee before the game where they can discuss the specific referee’s understanding of the laws.
The ELVs have become synonymous with controversy, not only for the style of rugby they aim to implement but also for the kind of refereeing needed to manage them. Subjectivity reigns with different officials likely to officiate in different ways. Teams no longer only study the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses before a big game, but the strengths and weaknesses of the appointed referee as well. It may sound bizarre, but it’s a very necessary preparation.
De Villiers’s idea is not without merit, as at the very least it would improve the communication between the coaches and the officials. You’d expect a ref to be consistent as well as clear. The fact that referees may differ in their approach to game management is something Test nations will have to accept, but erratic officiating should never be accepted, nor a lack of clarity.
De Villiers proposed meeting the day before a Test, but that is too late. Teams need time to prepare if they know a referee is going to be particularly strict in some areas, and somewhat lenient in others. If they know referees are going to allow opposition loose forwards more time to contest or kill the ball, they have to work harder at the clean outs or even commit more numbers to the rucks.
This may present a problem given that Test referees are not always in the country or city where the teams are training. But this is no excuse, as a simple phone call should be enough.
O’Brien criticised the Boks for making their grievances public rather than taking the matter up with him by submitting a full report. In this way, De Villiers has missed an opportunity to initiate some change. The IRB need to consider this course of action, as it will eliminate the surprise factor that comes with the current standard of subjective of refereeing.
If a referee is clear in the build up that he is going to be strict in any particular area, both teams know what to expect and so does the media and the public. In that way, the respective sectors can commend or criticise the official according to the own standards set by himself just days before.
By Jon Cardinelli