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Is Matt the new Bryce?

Lawrence was chosen by the Springbok management to referee the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal between Australia and South Africa. South Africa lost 9-11 and Lawrence was loudly and often rudely condemned and threatened, so much so that he was not appointed to Super Rugby matches in South Africa that year – this despite four very clear Springbok errors that clearly helped to effect their defeat despite having nothing to do with Bryce Lawrence.


Here are some facts about Matt O'Brien and the Blitzboks in the distant and recent past.

Matthew O'Brien, the 34-year-old son of Paddy O'Brien, was born in Invercargill, New Zealand. After he graduated as a pharmacist from Otago University in Dunedin, he moved to Queensland where he played on the wing for Gold Coast Breakers.

In 2008 he stopped playing and started refereeing. In 2011 he was chosen as a referee on the Sevens circuit, a year before his father took charge of Sevens referees for World Rugby. Matt O'Brien has also been one of SANZAAR's chosen referees for Super Rugby. This seems to be the first time there have been criticisms of his refereeing, and overwhelmingly by South Africans. Certainly it is the most vehement.

Here is a some information about Matt O'Brien's refereeing the Blitzboks in the Sevens Series.

1. Matt O'Brien has now refereed South Africa v New Zealand in five finals since 2012. Up till now South Africa has won four, New Zealand one. One of those that the Blitzboks won was the Final of the Commonwealth games.

2. Matt O'Brien has refereed New Zealand vs South Africa also in two Cup semifinals. South Africa have won one and lost one.

3.  Matt O'Brien has refereed two other finals in which New Zealand played – against Fiji and against England.


4. In total Matt O'Brien has refereed New Zealand in 19 matches since December 2012, when all coaches agreed that he be classed as an Australian referee.

5. There were eight referees at the Wellington Sevens – three South Africans, two New Zealanders, two Australians and a Scot. That means there were three unattached referees available for the final between New Zealand and South Africa – Mike Adamson of Scotland, Anthony Moyes and Matt O'Brien of Australia. O'Brien, who had refereed Seven finals, was appointed to this final, presumably because he had been the best of the three at this tournament.

Try to watch the match dispassionately and you may well end up with three discernible errors:

a. When South Africa scored a try by taking a quick tap from a free kick following a five-metre scrum, O'Brien allowed the scrumhalf to take this a good metre to the side of the mark. The New Zealand team could have defended the tap if South Africa had been made to take the kick in line with the mark.


b. When Matt O'Brien penalised South Africa for sealing off when no New Zealand player was contesting the ball, in the context of the match, this was a poor decision – for South Africa were winning uncontested ball.

c. It was not a knock-on or throw-forward that Cheslin Kolbe got possession which would probably have brought a try to South Africa..

General Comment

South Africa were the most heavily penalised team at the tournament with an average of 5.8 penalties against them per match of which 4.5 were at the breakdown. The overall average of the other teams was 3.5 penalties conceded per match with an average of 2.3 penalties at the breakdown. That does not entirely explain a 9-1 penalty count against the Blitzbokke.

Matt O'Brien may well not have been wholly to blame for South Africa's defeat, just as Bryce Lawrence was not wholly to blame in 2011.

Do you remember when Marius van der Westhuizen of South Africa refereed a final between South Africa and New Zealand and South Africa won and nobody complained?

The treatment of Bryce Lawrence was wrong and so is the treatement of Matt O'Brien.

It seems that it is an integral part of South African rugby to complain about the referee and insult him. It is no wonder that South Africa has referees beaten up during and after matches.

They are fair game – not human beings entitled to respect and good manners as human beings, part of what is required by the laws of God and man. It is a black mark on the reputation of a great rugby nation.

By Paul Dobson


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