IRB need to up their game

2013-09-21 00:00

WHY is it that the Springbok rugby team are so often on the wrong end of poor refereeing in the big competitions? Arguably, the two most important matches of the past couple of years have been ruined by abject refereeing. In both cases the Springboks were defeated as much by the decisions of the referees as by the skill of their opponents.

Last week’s effort by Monsewer Poite not only ruined things for the Springboks, but it ruined, as a spectacle, a match that had been looked forward to by millions of rugby fans. The International Rugby Board (IRB) acted with speed in reversing the red card of the unfortunate Bismarck du Plessis, but the damage had been done both to the Springboks and the match. Nothing can ameliorate the disappointment of all those people who were anticipating a battle royal between the two best teams in the world.

What emerged from Poite’s panic-stricken incompetence were exercises in damage limitation, firstly by the Springboks and then by Poite, who sent off a couple of All Blacks in the dying throes of the game. Ultimately the game was a poor advertisement for rugby.

Bryce Lawrence will never take charge of another international and one can only hope that Poite is given a lengthy sabbatical before he is again entrusted with a game of importance. None of which does any good to the Springboks unless the IRB learn the lessons of the effects of botched refereeing.

My observation of the Bismarck incident is the same as the conclusion I reached after the infamous Schalk Burger eye gouging. It is that the prime cause of the “mistake” was that the referee was communicating with another official in a language with which he was not familiar. This is a basic error of planning.

The point is that not just any referee must be given the most important games in the rugby calendar. These games must go to the best and most experienced referees in the pay of the IRB. A rugby match between the All Blacks and the Springboks may resemble a battlefield at times, but deep down it is the most priceless form of entertainment on the IRB’s books.

Every care must be taken to ensure that all the conditions under which these matches are played do nothing to detract from the performances of the players. Not much can be done about the weather, but the fitness of the field plus the time and date of each match must be handled with the same careful attention that is the case with any major event in the entertainment industry.

For example it has long been obvious that, as a spectacle, rugby is best played during daylight hours when the conditions are much more likely to be conducive to good rugby. Players prefer the drier and warmer conditions usually offered by daylight as well as benefiting from playing during hours that suit the natural rhythms of the body. It is also more convenient and comfortable for paying spectators to attend daytime matches.

Even television viewers would be prepared to sacrifice some sleep in the interest of watching a match that is not adversely affected by slippery conditions. If the matches in New Zealand started two or three hours earlier it would make a world of difference to the quality of the entertainment and no difference to the sleeping habits of most supporters of the game.

In any case in those situations when the timing is awkward for television viewers, the broadcast can be delayed until a more convenient hour. The important attitude is that everything possible must be done to play the game at a time that is most likely to offer the best quality entertainment. Nothing should be done to compromise this principle.

Similarly, it is careless of the IRB to appoint a relative novice such as Romain Poite, who was not fluent in the language of the teams or his assistants, to handle the most compelling match in its annual calendar.

There is, however, another important issue that the IRB and other sporting bodies need to address.

For too long the principle of neutrality has dominated refereeing and umpiring appointments. In days gone by this was a real and contentious issue, but this is the era of professional sport in which match officials are handsomely paid for their services.

These people ply their profession with pride. The best of them, like professionals in all walks of life, do not wish to jeopardise their standing in the world community by operating in a biased manner. They know that any whiff of a lack of neutrality could mean the end of their careers. If anything, the top referees are more likely to favour the opponents of their own countries.

One issue that emerged during the recent Ashes series was that the pool of neutral umpires on the panel of the ICC’s elite umpires was so small that the same bunch of umpires did duty for every match. By the end of the series it was clear that all of them had lost confidence and the quality of their decision-making deteriorated. This may have been due to an element of fatigue, but was probably more the result of the relentless scrutiny of their work by both the media and millions of amateur pundits.

By the end of the series both teams wanted the best umpires, including those from England and Australia. Similarly, the referee who handles the forthcoming Ellis Park match between the All Blacks and Springboks should be the best in the world irrespective of his country of origin.

There will always be controversial decisions in highly competitive sports. Not every thing that happens in a game of rugby is black or white. Sometimes the television referee has to deal with excruciatingly difficult situations in which there is no clear cut answer. All we want is to know that, in the most important matches, these decisions are in the hands of the best available people.

The IRB need to up their game.

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