Don’t shoot the ref

Canon Rugby in Focus: Jim Kayes talks to Glen Jackson about the impossible job of keeping everyone happy while refereeing a rugby much

It’s a tough gig, we all accept that, but that doesn’t allay fears that the rugby World Cup could be decided by the referee, not the players.

There are 21 laws in rugby, but it’s not that simple. Each has a myriad of clauses and sub clauses, and then there’s the vagaries of interpretation.

Add to this the pace of the game, it’s collision aspect and the melee of bodies that often obscure what has actually happened, and it gets even trickier to officiate.

And the modern game has three more voices in the mix with the television match official increasingly involved and influential.

Just last weekend the Crusaders had a try disallowed when the World Cup-bound TMO Marius Jonker told the referee the try was scored from a forward pass.

It was an intervention Kiwis felt was as dodgy as the penalty count stacked against teams visiting South Africa in recent weeks.

Egon Seconds count is 31-3 in favour of his countrymen and Rasta Rasivhenge’s has been 24-7 in his last two games.

But Kiwi fans should realise their South African counterparts feel just as strongly that New Zealand referees are biased.

Indeed, it’s a common thread in rugby and at World Cups.

The All Blacks thought they were undone by Wayne Barnes in the quarterfinal loss to France in 2007 with Barnes the most hated man in New Zealand rugby for many years.

“Refereeing is pretty lonely because you’re the only one out on the field and in the modern game every stadium has a big screen so you can’t hide away from your mistakes.”

- Glen Jackson

It was the same for New Zealand's Bryce Lawrence when South Africans accused him of dreadful refereeing in their loss to Australia in the 2011 World Cup.

There were threats of violence from keyboard cowards and such was the vitriol that Lawrence was forced to quit refereeing not long after the tournament.

France thought South Africa’s Craig Joubert favoured the All Blacks in the 2011 final while the All Blacks were adamant he missed an eye gouge on Richie McCaw in that match.

Find a game, anywhere in the world, and the losing team and fans will have little that’s good to say about the referee.

New Zealand’s top referee Glen Jackson turned to officiating in 2010 after seven seasons as a professional player.

He says the blast furnace of criticism at a whistler was much more intense and personal than at players.

Players, he felt, had a slight buffer around them in public. “I don’t think, if they’re in the supermarket, someone will go up to them and say ‘you were pretty average at the weekend’, but they do if you’re a referee.

“Refereeing is pretty lonely because you’re the only one out on the field and in the modern game every stadium has a big screen so you can’t hide away from your mistakes.”

It’s the nature of rugby and the influence interpretation has on split second decisions that mistakes will be made.

But that doesn’t mean fears the referees will have too much say in Japan are unfounded.

Rugby’s issue is that too many fans don’t know why a referee has made the decision he or she just made.

That’s especially acute if you are at the match where long stoppages for the video referee to rule are left unexplained to those in the ground.

Surely in this modern world the referee’s microphone could be relayed to the stadium’s sound system just as it is to the TV broadcast.

It seems rugby is happy leaving it’s fans in the dark.

It’s not all about the referee, of course, as players cheat, push boundaries and try to get illegal advantages in every game that’s played, and in a collision sport things also happen by accident.

Coaches also train and encourage their players to test the laws and to try and exploit any advantage.

This all adds to the tapestry of a game that can be great to watch but can also be a complicated, befuddling mess.

When I asked Jackson what the biggest blight on the game was from a law book perspective, he said the law book itself.

“There are so many laws and probably 50 per cent would never come up in a game. We know the laws, but are they good for the game and how you blow your whistle?”

Scrums were difficult to rule on and the time taken on setting and resetting them was a waste, he added. The breakdown was always tough to rule on.

The line speed of defences was also a big factor and had increased markedly since Jackson retired as a player.

I suggested the laws should be re-written in a simpler fashion that reflected the modern game and he agreed, adding that most players didn’t know most of the laws.

It reminded me of when former test referee Keith Lawrence once asked me if was a good thing that the referee had to bark “it’s a ruck, it’s a ruck, it’s a ruck”.

At least when he did the players knew and understood. Too often now players - and just as importantly fans - are left wondering what happened and why.

It will be a huge pity if that’s a common emotion at the World Cup in a few months.

The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.

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