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The sad decline of SA's referees

OPINION: @rugby365 columnist and two-time World Rugby Junior Championship winner Eugene Eloff takes a look at the dramatic decline in refereeing standards in South Africa.


With competitive rugby resuming in SA, after the COVID-19-enforced lockdown, there is new excitement in the air.

The positive is that we get to see the game we love on television and we can also stream the Under-21 competition.

On the flip side, the negative is that there are no spectators at the games. As a result, there is no atmosphere, with no spectators that can lift the players.

However, we have RUGBY and the Currie Cup – or Super Rugby Unlocked, as it is called – is resulting in a new batch of exciting young players coming to the fore.

Unfortunately, there is a tide of criticism – in the mainstream media and social media – over the poor standard of refereeing.

I am well aware that fanatic supporters are bias and subjective.


However, I have to agree that there were some questionable calls made by referees and TMOs in the opening round.

The biggest chorus of caterwauls relates to …
* Inconsistency
* The stop-start nature of refereeing, with games unable to develop rhythm and flow
* Referee appear to court the centre stage
* The poor management at the breakdown and interpreting thereof
* Referee communication and positioning
* TMOs sit with modern technology and still get calls wrong
* Touch judges also make poor judgement calls

I appreciate that generalising is fraught with problems and it would be more effective to list specific incidents.

However, there were so many we could end up with a lengthy record that includes many volumes.


As I was perpending the problem, it occurred to me that not so long ago South Africa had eight referees on the international panel.

Now we have just one – Jaco Peyper.

I have to ask: Who is responsible for the local referees’ education, development and training?

What went wrong?

Some posers to consider:
* Is the standards of referees in SA in a general decline?
* Is referee training not up to scratch?
* Are the refereeing assessors not adding value?
* Is politics also playing a role in the appointment and opportunities for referees?

As a coach, I had a clear approach to refereeing.
1) A referee is only human
2) Coaches should have a good relationship with the referees

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To get more of an insight, I had a chat with respected and world-renowned former referee Freek Burger – a man who once held the record for most Tests refereed by a South African and served on numerous international match official committees over many years.

No doubt it is a tough, unforgiving job to be a referee and we need them for a match to be played.

However, this was Freek’s input:

In my opinion, the following applies to a modern referee and his HELPERS.

1. MANAGEMENT was always the key word for all levels of referees and also CONSISTENCY, CLARITY and CONTROL. There is a great lack of Management at present.
2. Nothing annoys players, coaches and spectators more than INCONSISTENCY by a referee.
3. Inconsistency can occur if a referee is seen by players to be penalizing one side and not the other for a similar offence.
4. Bad calls made by his HELPERS and TMO. This was proven at the World Cup, with Yellow Cards turned into to RED.
5. Not reading the game – e.g. at the tackle – and just awarding penalties. PLAYERS CANNOT ALWAYS ROLL AWAY AND GET PENALIZED.
Let the tackle ‘breathe’ and communicate more and get flow in the game.
6. Bad positional play in awarding tries. Going to TMO has become the norm.
7. Calling players by the name and also teams. Not in the protocol, but what would happen if this gets reversed.
8. Lack of Law Knowledge at scrum time and guessing. Scrum feeds are part of bad scrum management.
9. At kick-off and box kicks players in front of ball. Again part of management.
10. Penalty gets awarded and player kicks for touch. Kick get taken well over mark. Bad management.
11. Obstruction at driving maul after five-metre penalty.
12. Concentration is vital throughout a game for a referee. Referees get distracted by spectators who may disagree with a decision and then the last-minute winning penalty gets awarded.

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Referees should be treated like players, by getting dropped after bad performances. This should be done by those in charge.

We need to look at SA referees’ selection, the training, assessors, mentorship and guide them to get back on the International referees’ panel.

In conclusion, I dedicate this article to my good friend the late Paul Dobson.

Probably the most knowledgeable man in refereeing circles and until the day of his passing, knew the laws – having passed his law exam every year for the past 50 years.

Paul inspired many referees and motivated them to achieve success and walked the long road with them.

He will be remembered for his integrity, sincerity, humility, kindness and love for the game and referees. RIP!

By Eugene Eloff

* Eugene Eloff is also the Managing Director of Elite Sport Mentorship

Other columns by Loffie

Who is responsible for the Kings’ chaos?
Rocking an already leaky boat
Playing politics or maintaining integrity
Hold your horses: This ain’t rugby

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