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SA referees have spoilt us

Our national obsession with referees borders sometimes on the extreme, and none more so this season as Sanzar introduces a number of new refs to the Super Rugby scene.

Renewal is constant – and necessary – for the lifeblood of any sport, be it referees or players or coaches. Renewal is the constant, making sure things don’t get stale, that problems don’t resurface or become an epidemic.

Or at least that is the theory.

The performances of some of the younger referees have left a lot to be desired over the past few weeks, whether on big decisions, or simply with regards to inconsistency.

It was hard not to feel the anger of Pierre Spies when Jonathan White gave the controversial penalty that sunk the Bulls in Canberra on Saturday, and while the refs may argue Spies and his team had enough opportunities in 80 minutes of rugby to win a game, it doesn’t take away the bitter taste of what happened.

Like Lourens van der Merwe and James Leckie the week before, or Garratt Williamson during pockets of the season, the new refs have come under fire for their handling of games, their inconsistency in decision-making and their insistence on taking the limelight in a game.

But there may be another reason for all our whining of course, and not one that may be too popular – we have become spoilt with the riches of our own referees.

Whatever you think of referees – they are pretty much like players think of the media at times: a necessary evil – you can’t play without them and all you want them to be is consistent, clear and firm. But they are human, and we tend to forget that.

Yet in the past few years we have become spoilt with the way our own referees have excelled. In the past six Rugby World Cup finals, our referees have taken the whistle in three – with the Springboks involved in two of the other three finals, thus ruling a SA ref out.

Over the years we’ve produced some fine referees – the best in the world and the envy of other countries. The likes of Andre Watson, Jonathan Kaplan, Craig Joubert, Mark Lawrence, Marius Jonker, Jaco Peyper and others serve virtually at will on the IRB’s select committees in their playing days. Off the field, Tappe Henning has become one of the leading voices in the IRB referee structures, and plays a prominent role in developing young talent.

Even now, on the Sevens circuit – where some of the worst mistakes are being made weekly by referees – our men stand out. Rasta Rashivenge has refereed two finals this year, and Marius van der Westhuizen took charge of the Hong Kong final – a prestigious honour given to the best neutral referee at the tournament.

In local derbies in the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, and in Absa Currie Cup matches, local referees often provide good, unbiased officiating, backed up by a good system. But too often we’re blinkered by the provincial bias we share, and we blame the referee for our team’s downfall.

The problem we need to realise, is that out there – in the wider world of Sanzar – things aren’t much better. The standards we are used to aren’t replicated in Australian rugby and not consistently in New Zealand rugby either.

In a meeting with Sanzar referees boss Lyndon Bray last week we discussed the current problems within the reffing structures and, believe me, there is a serious concern at some of the decisions being made.

But what also has come through the competition is that there is a massive gap between those with experience – the likes of Craig Joubert, Steve Walsh, Jonathan Kaplan, Chris Pollock, Jaco Peyper and rising star Glen Jackson - and the young referees that have just appeared on the scene.

Those young referees are coming to grips with the intensity of Super Rugby and are making mistakes. Sanzar is trying to help them through this and, as Bray points out, get them to a level where they can be the best in the world.

Australian rugby is struggling at the moment, and nowhere more than their referees. While South Africa, and in a lesser case New Zealand, have experience in their ranks, there is virtually none in Australian referees and that is a massive cause for concern at the moment.

There will always be decisions that we don’t agree with, that we will argue until bedtime. There will always be controversy and it is easier to blame the man with the whistle than the team’s shortcomings in the heat of battle.

But what is the solution then? Neutral referees may be one option, but in a situation where one country has referees that are inferior to the others, Sanzar’s current system of the best referees control the biggest games is the right one.

Till then we can only hope the training given by Sanzar will pay dividends. Getting the big calls right is part of the job and the mentoring of younger referees needs to be stepped up a notch. Bray and co know this all too well.

We can only hope they manage to find a solution and mentor the younger refs to become top-class whistle-blowers.

But until that happens, I’d have a South African ref any day.

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