Whistling the right tune

The professional referee has finally come of age in the Super 14, writes Keo in his Business Day Newspaper weekly column.

Referee Bryce Lawrence missed an obvious forward pass that led to the Sharks first try in Hamilton. Lawrence is a New Zealander. So is the television referee, who ruled against awarding the Chiefs tries on three occasions in a frantic final five minutes. The Sharks are a South African team and the Chiefs, as we all know, are all Kiwi.

The Sharks we also know won the game by seven points and four league points were banked when it could have been a case of just one or two for a draw.

We also know many a team has lost out on the play-offs because of a solitary league point. These were big calls made and missed. The ramification could determine the season of both teams.

Had the situation been reversed and Lawrence had missed the pass in a Chiefs’ try and had the television referee ruled in favour of the home team, which he could easily have done, what then in the Republic this Monday?

We would be ranting about cheating and one-eyed Kiwi officials and the Sharks, diplomatically or otherwise, would have questioned the scrapping of neutral referees in the competition.

What the weekend’s matches illustrated, and what we should be celebrating is the coming of age of the professional referee in this competition. It doesn’t mean he is beyond error or not vulnerable. It also does not mean that every one of them is as good as the next one. What the tournament so far has showed in 2009 is that these professional referees are not cheats and they certainly don’t favour a team on the basis of sharing a nationality.

Lawrence’s missing of the forward pass was poor officiating because he was running in line with the pass when it was made. Also Lawrence would have been within his rights to trust his own instinct in awarding the Chiefs a try each time he referred the decision in those final few minutes, yet on each occasion he went upstairs. The decisions were so tight every time that it would have been hard to argue against the television official if he had awarded the Chiefs the try.

In Cape Town South African referee Jonathan Kaplan erred in stopping play at halftime when he assumed the Blues had knocked the ball on. Television replays showed Stormers winger Tonderai Chavhanga’s hand to have been the one responsible for the ball going forward. Kaplan, as human as Lawrence, made a mistake. Later on in the match, with the Blues ahead by three points Kaplan awarded a penalty for a high tackle, which also could have been questioned because the Blues player ducked into Stormers lock Andries Bekker. Kaplan did not hesitate in awarding the full-arm penalty because he refereed what he saw, which was an infringement in his view and not the nationality of a team committing the infringement. The Blues added three points from the penalty to make it safe. Had it been the other way around and the Stormers had benefitted, there would have been accusations of referee bias based on nationality, just like there was in the days prior to neutral referees.

It was Danie Craven who famously (or infamously) said of New Zealand and South Africa’s rivalry pre-isolation: ‘You cheat us in your country and win and we cheat you in our country and win’.

If that was indeed the case – and you only have to think of the diabolical and embarrassing officiating in the 1976 series between the Springboks and All Blacks in South Africa – to believe Craven, then the game has indeed moved on for the better.

Much rightly has been made of referees getting it wrong and much must be made of them getting it wrong in the future. But the criticism must be in the context of sub-standard refereeing and not cheating.

I used to believe referees cheated teams with some of the decision-making I saw and some of the war stories told (by referees themselves), but in the last few years referees who have made officiating their profession just can’t afford to be cheats.

Referees will always make mistakes and they will get things wrong, as Lawrence did, but at least we can take comfort that it is human error, whereas in the past too many games were decided by home town referees afraid to get it right at the expense of their home team.