Column: Refereeing rot must be addressed

The standard of officiating in South African rugby has been cause for real concern this domestic season, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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The prominent insurance company whose name is emblazoned all over the match day kit of South African rugby officials has taken to running adverts of referees trying their hand at other lines of work – often with disastrous results.

If I get the insurer’s message right, the point is that were you ever to encounter gross incompetence, they’ll be there to pick up the pieces. If only that cover extended to the referees’ current litany of howlers at their day job …

While they are usually the first people to catch flak from all comers, as a professional critic I’ve always found it difficult to have a go at referees. This is because anyone who has ever met them can attest to how they are usually the most well-adjusted people in the game.

In more than 20 years as a rugby hack, I’ve found referees to be a patient, level-headed and funny bunch who do a fine line in self-deprecation. Post-match drinks at the stadiums are littered with examples of what good men and women officials are.

I remember Mark Lawrence – SA Rugby’s current head of referees – showing off his magic tricks to a crowd of journos after a game in Durban years ago, when one of them piped up: ‘Now, if only you’d make your reffing mistakes disappear …’

He took it in the bantering spirit it was intended, and so does a guy like Jaco Peyper when it comes to his unflattering but ingenuous nickname of ‘Toilet’ (as in paper). Referees have no choice but to be even-tempered because it doesn’t matter how great they are, they’ll always make a mistake.

That said, we can’t turn a blind eye to how atrocious SA rugby referees have been over the past year.

The rot was apparent during Super Rugby early last year, when a couple of hometown decisions moved some random Aussie to write a supposed analysis of how terrible our refs were in the competition.

At the time, SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ take was that they were refereeing most of the games, so they would have the most mistakes. I see where he’s coming from, but a lot of the officiating has been indefensible.

Sure, the playing standards have also slipped since lockdown, but the reffing quality appears to have fallen off a cliff. The low point for me was the Boxing Day game between Western Province and Griquas, which was marred by the TMO saying he couldn’t find ‘compelling’ evidence of three clear forward passes that had led to tries in the match.

Maybe the bigger lesson is that the Currie Cup shouldn’t be played on Boxing Day, but it is one thing for a referee to wrestle with decision in technical areas like the scrum, rolling maul or even rucks because of how busy it is there, but for two grown men to struggle to make a call a child could make, beggars belief.

I’ve heard of referees clamping down in certain areas of the game, especially when new laws have been introduced. Seeing the collective refereeing fraternity clamp down on forward passes – much to the bemusement of players passing like NFL quarterbacks – a week after the Boxing Day fiasco highlighted how ridiculous the situation has got.

The relationship between the TMO and the on-field referee has become an exercise in the kind of backside covering that results with them effectively throwing each other under the bus.

In the old days the on-field ref – worried about being exposed by technology – used to abdicate to the TMO, now the man upstairs can never find conclusive evidence to contradict his counterpart’s mistake in the middle.

Not only does that relationship have to be streamlined, we also need to get to the bottom of why officials who showed promise have simply not kicked on. It may sound a little shrill to say this, but the refereeing situation is reaching crisis proportions.

*This column appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale

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