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A reffing circus

Referees are a funny sort we know, but when it comes to policing the new scrum laws, they’ve become an even stranger lot.

Consider the “circus” - which was what Griquas coach Pote Human called Friday night’s Absa Currie Cup game at Loftus - and all the other big games played on the weekend and it was clear the new scrum laws weren’t the main focus, but rather the incorrect feed of the scrum by scrumhalves the world over.

From Sydney to Pretoria, Johannesburg to Cape Town, it was hard to keep overzealous referees in check as they relished punishing any angle on a put-in that remotely looked skew.

It got ridiculous at one time in Pretoria as referee Marius van der Westhuizen called Ruan Snyman – who had just appeared on the field as a substitute for Rudy Paige – and yellow carded him for an incorrect put-in.

“He’s making a mockery of the scrum,” Van der Westhuizen showed his irritation, “I won’t take that. It won’t happen again.”

Snyman was dispatched from the field because Paige had twice put the ball in incorrectly, forcing Van der Westhuizen to go from the short-arm to a full penalty and he felt the new scrumhalf deserved 10 minutes on the sidelines for his actions.

But things really got absurd when Clayton Blommetjies had to fill in at the next scrum. Van der Westhuizen reminded him that “if it goes skew, it will be a red card.”

I happened to have a conversation with an international test referee on the weekend where he was appalled by the mere thought of a yellow card for an incorrect put-in.

Of course, yellow cards were introduced for foul play, for professional fouls and to punish those killing the ball. But for a scrum feed? You’ve got to be kidding me!

Referees across the country have a hard enough time as it is. They are often unfairly attacked by fans that disregard facts and use their own biases to make decisions.

They make mistakes, and sometimes these are costly, but for the most part they are human beings who do their best to control a heated game in the midst of a shower of testosterone and usually do it pretty well.

What has transpired now is that referees have been told they have one chance to get the feeds right. The free kick-penalty-yellow card-red card progression has been hammered into them from the top and one referee even alleged that South African refs have been threatened with removal from the panel if they don’t implement the law strictly.

Surely in a world of the professional game, where teams want to play expansive rugby, fans want to be entertained and referees have a hard enough job as it is, there needs to be a common sense approach to this.

To lose a player for 10 minutes or the rest of the game because of a few incorrect scrum feeds is way past the point. Halfbacks will have to adapt, but it can’t be at all healthy for the game for something so mundane and insignificant to become such a massive talking point.

There should be no problem with a repeated penalty if the player continues to infringe and, like the scrum, if it happens three or four times, referees will have no option to reach for cards.

But to do it when a substitute player just comes onto the field and with his first scrum is bizarre, unwarranted and does massive damage to the game.

Referee bosses are unlikely to agree with me of course, and that is their right. But when a referee becomes pedantic, like a schoolmaster who enforces discipline to the extreme, nobody enjoys the game anymore, and nobody wins the fight.

There is a middle ground here, and we all know that. But until the men in the middle and players decide to meet each other halfway, this will continue to be a problem.

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