Time to stop blaming refs

South African attitudes to referees are a cocktail of ignorance and arrogance, writes Keo in his weekly Business Day newspaper column.

Even on the weekend that they did not play, the limp Lions were the biggest Super 14 losers thanks to the Force’s unexpected injury-time victory against the Stormers in Perth.

The Lions, the only team without a win in the competition, are now officially the worst side on show and it is unlikely to improve against the Reds, despite the latter’s two-point defeat against the Sharks in Durban.

The Sharks, gutsy, determined and refusing to be beaten, showed the kind of ticker you expect from a side with so much international experience and talent. Four weeks ago the referee would probably have penalised the Sharks in the final movement of the game and the opposition would have kicked the three points to claim victory. Not in Durban on Saturday. The last turnover was debatable, but funnily enough I never heard any South African say anything. They never do when their team wins.

I watched All Out Rugby on Sunday and one caller made that very point, that whenever we lose we single out the referee, but whenever we win he is never a consideration. The very next caller singled out South African referee Craig Joubert for being the reason the Blues beat the Bulls in Auckland.

For a country so rich in rugby talent and so steeped in rugby tradition we must have the most ignorant and arrogant rugby supporters. And nothing tastes worse than a cocktail of ignorance and arrogance.

The Blues beat the Bulls because the latter played more poorly than the former in a game that lacked precision, intensity and quality. Perhaps the Bulls struggled to come to terms with playing in daylight or, as captain Victor Matfield lamented, it was a traditional case of second-week-on-tour blues for the Bulls.

The Bulls, says Matfield, have a history of losing the second game on tour, which is some kind of comfort for the team who plays them at home next year, but not for the team who plays them in week three of this year’s tour.

What the Bulls display did do was leave me with some scrambled eggs on my face; this a week after I put the Bully Boys on a pedestal for their rugby intelligence and ability to play with width and also play field position and percentages. I contrasted it to the dumb rugby we have seen from the likes of the Blues and Hurricanes. No sooner had the ink dried and the Bulls dished up their dumbest display of the season.

It wasn’t a good weekend for South African teams, but it was not a disaster. The Cheetahs, we knew, would get thumped. Enough said there. The Stormers were seconds away from an ugly win which they would not have deserved. Instead, they lost to an injury-time drop goal from a player who had never kicked one before in the Super 14.

Stormers captain Schalk Burger, like Bulls captain Matfield, did not bitch about the defeat. Both agreed that for their teams to be successful they have to dominate the collisions, control the breakdown and play percentages better. In their respective games they were not allowed to do this because physically the opposition got the better of them. If they can admit it then it shouldn’t be too hard for the supporters to do so too.

The good thing about the Super 14 is that it is determined over 13 matches. Teams who had lost five to six matches have made it to the play-offs and had success. When a team drops an away game or two it is not the end of the world, unless it is the Lions who drop seven in row, including two home games.

The biggest winner for me at the weekend was South African referee Jonathan Kaplan. What a performance in Wellington. It had everything you expect from the game’s best. He was consistent in his application, trusted his instinct in terms of feel and was never afraid to make the big calls. Everyone I spoke to raved about the quality and flow of the Crusaders-Hurricanes game.

The same people raved about the quality of the French win against Wales in Cardiff a few weeks ago. The common denominator was Kaplan. He is miles ahead of the next guy.

Kaplan, unlike so many other referees, takes responsibility and he makes the decision regardless of how unpopular it may be.

Many referees would have copped out of making the call to rule in favour of a Crusaders injury-time try in Wellington. Kaplan could easily have used the escape of television and said the ball was unsighted.

He trusted what he saw, made the call and fronted on television afterwards to articulately explain his call.

That, ladies and gents, is the calibre of the man.