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RWC 2019 Officiating: The Cancer has Spread

04 October 2019, by: SIBUSISO MJIKELISO in Tokyo.

RWC 2019 Officiating: The Cancer has Spread

IT used to be that the odd French forward pass to knock perennial Rugby World Cup favourites, New Zealand, out would create the Rugby World Cup refereeing storm that endured decades of debate.

It used to be one muddy disallowed Abel Benazzi try, in favour of the host nation, and against Les Bleu (South Africa versus France in the 1995 semifinal) would be talked about in bars and man caves years after the fact.

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During the 2019 tournament in Japan, it appears as though not a game goes by without some or other officiating brain fart.

It used to be a monumental moment of refereeing madness that would bring an entire nation to its knees, as it did in the 2011 quarterfinal between the Springboks and the Wallabies in Wellington.

It used to be one marginal Craig Joubert slip up – was it a scrum or a penalty? – that would be talked about in the Scottish Highlands until the mist dried up.

We used to live in a time when there was one, maybe two, controversial refereeing decisions per World Cup. But the Japan tournament has shown us flames.

Ireland and South Africa are the two teams that have always rooted for each other because of their common enemies: England and New Zealand.

The most obvious connection, of course, is the green that each wear proudly. Relations between the two countries are quite cordial. For instance, there is no visa requirement for South Africans to travel to Ireland and vice-versa.

When Ireland beat New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2016 – quite comprehensively – the biggest cheer came from the foot of Africa.

The latest officiating storm (and by the time you read this, there might be yet another) surrounds Wallaby Samu Kerevi’s carry into contact while getting tackled by Welshman Rhys Patchell in their 29-25 defeat.

Kerevi was adjudged to have “led with the forearm”, which therefore constituted dangerous play. His coach Michael Cheika had his predictable meltdown at the press conference.

“I think he put his arm into his chest. I don’t know if that is illegal or not. I don’t know anymore. I don’t know the rules anymore, honestly,” he said.

It appears as if there’s a sweeping attempt from authorities to take the rugged out of rugby.

The Wallaby centre did what all feared ball-carriers do: go hard into contact and, if wrapped, try to de-shell your body from your tackler by any means necessary.

That could be a hand-off, twisting your body, Ardie Savea’s trademark leg drive or dismissing your opponent with your forearm. They aren’t just legal methods; they are rugby. Fans salivate at the prospect of an opponent getting “ejected from the bus”, so to speak.

Wendell Sailor used to be the master of the forearm hand-off. Right when you think you’ve got your webs around him, the former Rugby League and Union star would eject you so fast off his bus that you’d need a parachute to get back down to earth.

According to former international referee Jonathan Kaplan, it’s not uncommon that referee managers decide what’s vogue in terms of officiating in the game, at any given point in time. The tackle contact area, in this World Cup, has certainly come under that microscope.

“Why are some areas refereed and why are some not?” Kaplan said, speaking to scribes before the World Cup began.

“It’s what are the trends and what are the referee managers hot on and what are they looking for in terms of delivering a product that the players and public want.

“They then think of how they can achieve consistency in that application. But there are some things that we willingly, knowingly, don’t do (officiate).”

But it’s not only the decisions that have come under the spotlight. The referees themselves, who should be anonymous conduits to a good and fair game of rugby, have become celebrities unto themselves.

However, instead of getting celebrated, they’ve gained infamy. Any one of Jerome Garces, Romain Poirte and Angus Gardner could take a gun to someone’s World Cup chances this month and pull the trigger.

It isn’t that they do it intentionally; it is that they are so consumed by the fear of not becoming “another Bryce Lawrence” that they long forgot how to officiate the moment. With all the technology available, the moment becomes too big and they freeze.

In many ways, it’s no different to the famous Proteas choke.

Lawrence, the patron Saint of poor refereeing, became the barometer of what not to do when he tanked the Springboks’ World Cup in their quarterfinal against Australia in 2011.

Justly or unjustly, that was the end of him. It was a similar case four years later for Craig Joubert.

“It can make or break you, there’s no question about it,” said Kaplan about the pressure on World Cup officials. 

“If a referee has a bad game at the World Cup, it’s magnified. You only need to look at what happened to Bryce Lawrence … he disappeared. He never reffed another Test match again.

“Poor Craig Joubert as well. He made a decision in real time, which a lot of us needed another look , and it was a tricky call. They amplified it because it was the defining call in the quarterfinal between Scotland and Australia. I think that’s when Craig’s star started to wane. 

“These World Cup games are critical for one’s refereeing career.” 

It might be hard to pick a Hall of Shamer from this year’s crop to join Paddy O’Brien and Derek Bevan. There are far too many candidates.

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