The standard of match officiating in Super Rugby is as mediocre as the overall standard of rugby in the competition.
This past weekend was particularly noticeable because of the impact it had on the match in Cape Town between the Stormers and Blues.
The Blues were leading 19-10 when the Stormers Kiwi recruit Shaun Treeby should have been red carded for a swinging stiff-arm high tackle that knocked out Blues flyhalf Piers Francis. Instead the on- field sanction was a penalty.
There was no surprise to the Citing Commissioner singling out Treeby’s action as a ‘red card’ sanction. The player is likely to be given a month suspension.
The South African referee Jaco van Heerden had a shocker, as did South African Television Match Official Shaun Veldsman.
Who knows how the match would have unfolded but it always leaves a bad taste that South African officiating always seems to carry such obvious bias. There are so many examples this season of the inconsistency in applying the high tackle law, with South African referees (in South Africa) among the most culpable when it comes to the inconsistency.
I can count on average five high tackles a game that goes unpunished. The interpretation of the release of the tackled player is also only consistent because of its inconsistency.
The officiating is a shambles, which is in keeping with the nature of the qualification process that guarantees two South African teams and one Australian team a home quarter-final because of a conference system that doesn’t reward strength versus strength.
The Lions, by virtue of the competition draw, should finish top of the table and host the play-offs. It is why so many have considered them favourites to win this year’s tournament. Home ground advantage is significant in the history of Super Rugby’s finals.
The Lions have been very good this season, but the Crusaders have been exceptional to win 12 matches in succession, when you consider the quality of their schedule, as opposed to that of the Lions.
The smart money would be on one of the Crusaders or Hurricanes having to go to Ellis Park in the final to win it.
And that would take some doing.
If the final does play out to be South Africa versus New Zealand, then it is imperative neutral match officials (including the TMO) are used. The competition’s integrity is already shattered, without the accusations of bias towards local match officials.
The Lions have easily been South Africa’s best team, but New Zealand has four teams that have produced quality and consistency that matches the Lions.
The Lions put 50 points past the hapless Bulls at Ellis Park, but the Crusaders scored 60 against the same pitiful Bulls at Loftus.
This year’s Super Rugby competition has consisted of a Super Five in the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs and Lions. The Stormers, Sharks and Blues complete a top eight, with the latter three all a mixture of wonderful and woeful. The rest, like the match officials, have been second rate.
It’s the Achilles heel of Super Rugby that there is no sanction to a poor season or poor officiating. The same old is back every weekend producing the same old.
The Test season can’t come soon enough and neither can the British and Irish Lions three-Test series against the All Blacks, which will be the highlight of the 2017 rugby year.
It is going to be immense.
South Africa’s three-Test series against France will be the local delight but it doesn’t compare in quality of teams or in intensity.
It’s a series South Africa will win, in spite of who is coaching the national team.
Allister Coetzee names a squad of 31 on Tuesday and it should feature several overseas-based players and the bulk of the Lions Super Rugby squad. The key will be the respective position-specific combinations he selects for the first Test against France.
There has been the usual focus on who will captain the Springboks and there has been support for Lions captain Warren Whiteley and also for Toulon-based former Stormers captain Duane Vermuelen.
Personally, I’d opt for Vermeulen with Lions flanker Jaco Kriel the alternative, as both would be in my starting XV.
Whiteley is an outstanding Super Rugby player, but so far he hasn’t had the same presence in his brief Test career.
The team to start against France is likely to include very few players who lost to Wales in Cardiff six months ago, which is a good thing.
*This article first appeared in Business Day Newspaper