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Refereeing highs and lows

The referees had a normal, happy/sad year. For referees at all levels around the world there has been happy involvement in the greatest game – keeping fit, exercising judgement, enjoying the game's camaraderie.

Of course, there have been disappointments but for those who referee, refereeing is normally great fun. The happy side of refereeing at the top is the emergence of several young referees, through above all the IRB, the ERC and SANZAR, apart from national structures.

The emergence of the young guard has meant the departure of the some of the old guard. The IRB changed its merit panel, rendering it down to just nine. Out went several great referees of recent times in the post-World Cup shake-up which is now a part of rugby.

Jonathan Kaplan, the most capped referee of all time, Bryce Lawrence, Dave Pearson, Wayne Barnes, who got back onto the panel, Christophe Berdos, Keith Brown, who has subsequently retired, Stuart Dickinson, who retired, Peter Fitzgibbon, Marius Jonker, Mark Lawrence and Andrew Small.

The new IRB merit panel became: George Clancy (Ireland), Jérôme Garcès (France), Craig Joubert (South Africa), Nigel Owens (Wales), Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Romain Poite (France), Alain Rolland (Ireland) and Steve Walsh (Australia). The only new referee is Peyper.

Pollock has been suffering from arthritis of his left hip which has required surgery but he hopes to be fit for 2013 Super Rugby.

There was a successful IRB Junior Championship in South Africa from which some young referees emerged to suggest a healthy future.  

Lourens van der Merwe of South Africa, Mathieu Raynal of France, Leighton Hodges of Wales, Glen Jackson of New Zealand, Greg Garner of England and Francesco Pastrana refereed Tests in November, as did Johnny Lacey, the former wing/fullback  for Ireland A .

Lacey, Juan Sylvestre of Argentina and Joaquin Montes of Uruguay refereed in the Pacific Nations Cup and Lacey has established himself in the European Cup.

There is a healthy look about top refereeing now and into the future.

The IRB Sevens World Series continues to offer promising referees a place on the international stage. The most prominent of them is Rasta Rashivenga of South Africa who refereed the final of the Hong Kong Sevens last season and two Finals this season – in Dubai and Port Elizabeth.

There have been changes at the top of international refereeing management.  After eight years as the IRB's refereeing chief, Paddy O'Brien has moved to running the referees in the Sevens Series. Joël Jutge of France, a former Test referee, has taken his place at the helm of referees.

There has also been a streamlining change to the machinery for grading and appointing referees internationally.  Chaired by IRB Council Member and former Scotland international John Jeffrey, who took the place of Keith Rowland, the committee comprises former Test referees Lyndon Bray, Tappe Henning (both SANZAR), Donal Courtney and Clayton Thomas (both Six Nations) with Jutge. The committee meets four times a year to make selections for the next international window with all performances reviewed as part of the next round of international selections.

That is a lot of good things up at the top. And those good things will filter down – in organisation, in increasing aspirations to be better, in example set and so on.

But, sadly, there are things that are bad, and they, too, can filter down, discouraging at best and setting a dangerous example at worst. The saddest side of refereeing by far is physical abuse, followed by verbal abuse, followed by nasty criticism.

Glen Jackson of New Zealand, who in his time was a flyhalf for the Maori, Britain's Barbarians, the Chiefs of the Waikato and the Saracens of London, refereed his first Test match.

Asked about a difference between playing and refereeing, he said: "Players can make a mistake and people are quiet about it and then if they do something brilliant, they are applauded.

“If a referee makes a mistake he is no good and no number of fantastic calls can make up for it. You have to develop a thick skin. I am surprised that people think referees cheat. There is simply no time to cheat, not as you try to deal with the complexity of the laws."

Referees do come in for loads of criticism – often far more so than players. A lot of it is unwarranted and excessive. Look at the nine referees on the Merit Panel.

There are people, often untrained and untested and frequently anonymous, who will believe vehemently that there is one – at least one – who should not be there. This would apply to every one of those nine referees. If we do not want the nine chosen by experts, would we then be happy with the second nine? The third nine? For we must have a referee.

This criticism sometimes happens in high places, requiring the IRB to act against injudicious statements. There is also pressure from those with strong attachment to their team on refereeing management.

There are some television commentators who add to the poor image of the referee. Some of the experts employed to make comments are often woeful when it comes to the laws.

Even with the advantage of a slow-motion replay, a luxury the referee does not have, commentators get law wrong, proclaiming it to millions of watchers around the globe.

They are believed because they played international rugby, and so the referee is wrong, an idiot and a cheat, even when he was right!

The limelight on top referees is intense and attempts to ease their burden are not really dimming the intensity. Assistant referees increasingly have more power than the old touch judges.

The IRB is looking at ways to give the TMO more powers. Perhaps the IRB should look again at the use of two referees, but look seriously this time and over time.

They went along in 1995, filled with preconceived ideas, affirmed their preconceived ideas and dismissed the idea.

Stellenbosch University has used the two-referee system for years and has good records of its use. Those who have refereed there believe in the system, with stats to prove that the number of penalties reduces and so does criticism of referees. It's hard to shoot at two targets at once!

By Paul Dobson


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