Refereeing the Final
Refereeing the FinalSHARE
All referees who have refereed a Currie Cup Final will say that it was a, if not the, highlight of their refereeing career, even those who have refereed Test matches. And Jonathan Kaplan has the last say.
Till 1973 the home team would submit a panel of three referees and the visiting team would chose. That changed in 1973 when Piet Robbertse became the first unattached referee to referee a Final.
The previous year he had refereed the final between Eastern Transvaal and Transvaal in Springs and he was the deputy president of Eastern Transvaal. Transvaal won and the Eastern Transvalers were unhappy with Robbertse – their own man who had done nothing to help them. Early in the next year he went to Doc Craven and put a strong case for unattached referees, which became the norm till 2010 when Craig Joubert, who lives in Durban, referee the Final in Durban between the Sharks and Western Province. Now it is happening again. Kaplan, who lives in Cape Town is refereeing the Final in Cape Town between Western Province and the Sharks. And nobody in his right mind cares.
Like all referees, Robbertse found refereeing the Currie Cup Final a great honour, second only to refereeing the Springboks against the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth in 1970.
Test referee Gert Bezuidenhout , who took Jonathan Kaplan under his wing when the schoolboy joined the Transvaal Referees’ Society, refereed under both systems. In 1971 Northern Transvaal chose him from a panel ahead of Cas de Bruyn and Ginger Otto. He refereed two more Finals, on each occasion appointed to the job – Free State vs Western Province in 1976, the first time Free State won the Currie Cup, and Free State vs Northern Transvaal in 1978.
He died recently but when speaking about the Finals some time ago he said of the change in system: "I did not like the new system. On the field there are just two teams and you blow what you see. True, you are open to criticism but it does not change the way you referee. On the field you don't stop and think about a decision. You see and react.
"I think it's time people forgot about the referee and got on with the game."
Bezuidenhout said of refereeing a Currie Cup Final: "It's a great occasion in the life of the referee.
"Before my first Final we stood for the national anthem. I got such a big lump in my throat I could not ask the teams if they were ready. I swallowed and swallowed, and eventually managed to say something.
"The other two were easier."
Jimmy Smith-Belton of Eastern Province refereed three Currie Cup Finals – in 1977, 1988 and 1989.
He says of refereeing the Currie Cup Final: "Absolutely awesome. You can't describe it – running out onto the field, the continual buzz.
"You don't have time to think. Refereeing just becomes a natural reaction. You see and you act. In other matches you can stand back a bit and think, but not in a Currie Cup Final. It's exciting, and you're a part of it.
"The best experience I had was in 1988. I penalised WP in the last minute at Loftus when Michael du Plessis infringed. Northern Transvaal kicked it over and won by one point.
"The first person into the changing room afterwards was Dawie Snyman, the Province coach. He said to me: 'Thanks, Jimmy. And I have no problem with that last decision. You blew what you saw.'
"It made the Final for me."
Freek Burger refereed Test matches and he refereed five Finals – in 1987, 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993. He would probably have refereed more but he was from Western Province who were in the Finals from 1982 to 1986 and in 1988 and 1989. Burger also referee the inaugural Super Rugby Final.
Burger says: "The Currie Cup is the highlight of the season, the most important match in your own country. The whole season comes down to that last match and all the focus is on it. This was especially the case in the years of isolation but it seems that the Currie Cup has not lost its importance even ion these times of many Tests.
"It is a great honour to referee the Final. When you stand for the anthems before a Test at a ground like Twickenham, you get gooseflesh. It's much the same when you referee a Currie Cup Final.
"The pressure is all the greater because they are local teams. It's such a great occasion. All that's left of the competition is two teams and a referee.
"Every one is memorable but two stand out in particular.
"In 1987 at Ellis Park we had four seasons in one day. The sun shone, the rain fell, then hail fell and then the wind blew. That day Naas Botha dictated the game as I have never seen any other player do in any game anywhere.
"In 1990 at Loftus, Natal won the Currie Cup for the first time. Tony Watson scored a try and then Robert du Preez dived on him. I gave the try and then a penalty on the half-way line. Natal won 18-12. When I blew the Final whistle, Vleis Visagie rushed over to me and picked me up as he hugged me."
André Watson refereed more Currie Cup Finals than anybody else – seven in all, in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2004. He refereed two World Cup Finals and five Super Rugby Finals.
Watson says simply of refereeing the Currie Cup Final: "It is the best. It is the highest honour and the biggest pressure for a South African referee. It means somehow more than a World Cup Final – refereeing your own people, brother against brother. It's not better, just different – and so special."
Jonathan Kaplan has referee 68 Tests. He has been to the World Cup and he has refereed three Super Rugby Finals – and now he is to referee his sixth Currie Cup Final. Blasé? Not in the least.
On Friday he said: "I am as excited as I was for the biggest Test I have refereed. I feel good. There are nerves but good nerves, looking forward to a great occasion with two evenly matched teams and history in the fixture.
"I am sure it will be an intense occasion with lots of excitement. I am ready to give it my best.
"People have suggested that it could all be a bit déjà vu for me. That couldn't be further from the truth. The occasion has become even more exciting."
For Kaplan, this occasion is all the more exciting – his last match as a professional referee. What a wonderful way to go – a Currie Cup Final at glorious Newlands.