In a truly memorable season, the role of technology was pivotal

2007-12-29 00:00

With Christmas over and New Year looming it is an appropriate time to review what has been a bumper season of rugby. The highlight was that the Boks beat England to win the World Cup in France, while the Sharks’ Super 14 loss to the Bulls in a memorable final was a major disapointment.

The year 2007 saw the launch of “Blowing the Whistle” in the Weekend Witness. While this is the first newspaper column to regularly take on the refereeing fraternity and highlight — in my view and from the comfort of my lounge — the errors that were made by officials in the most important of matches that we all watch on TV, that was not the primary reason for writing this feature. The goal was to attempt to educate our readers in the application of the laws of rugby, while showing that they are not always wrong and that the referee is not always right

The year started in February with the Super 14 and the Sharks did not disappoint us this season as they managed to stage a final against the Bulls in Durban for the first time.

The season started indifferently as we had to bear the brunt of the inexperienced referees from Down Under. The Super 14 season has always had its fair share of controversy, and 2007 was no different. We had some excellent refereeing performances, especially from South Africans Mark Lawrence and Jonathan Kaplan, but the final had to be refereed by a foreigner.

Steve Walsh (New Zealand) refereed his first Super 14 final, and it would be a contest that no Sharks fan would ever forget. Bok wing Bryan Habana broke through in the dying seconds of the game to hand the Bulls victory, but not after the referee missed what seemed to be a clear knock on by the Bulls and then the illegal playing of the ball on the ground at the critical ruck. The final movement of the game was replayed several times and it became more and more obvious that Walsh had made an error. He was man enough to admit it to the press a week later, but the error was not only his. Fellow-New Zealander Lyndon Bray was the touch judge and he was just as much to blame. His non-action at the time the ball was lost forward and at the ruck was clear for all to see and with all the technology at his fingertips he failed to use it.

The TMO (television match official) was widely used this year and, although its powers were broadened, his duties remained confined to the in-goal area. There was no greater stage for it to be used than in the World Cup in France. It became the most talked about decision at the tournament.

In the final we saw South Africa overcome England, but not after Mark Cueto’s try was disallowed by the TMO, Stuart Dickenson of Australia. It was a superb decision under extreme circumstances.

First, he had an exceptionally tight call and the initial TV replays suggested a try until one replay from behind that briefly showed Cuote’s left foot breaking the line of touch just before he touched down. Second, he had to deal with a TV producer that could not speak English. The liaison officer in the TMO box also battled with English. Finally, he had all the pressure of the occasion and the anticipation of the call. Miraculously he got the right call across to the referee who then broke English hearts by disallowing the try which may have turned the game and denied the Springboks a famous victory.

Technology has developed so quickly over the last 10 years and it is so frustrating to see it not being used enough in sport today.

The sport of cricket introduced us to use of a TMO and today every decision can be replayed and scrutinised by the viewing public. But because the laws of cricket prohibit the use of technology except in certain areas we see umpires make errors with players simply having to accept it.

The final chapter of the year saw the Currie Cup being won by the Free State, in what must be one of the more remarkable comebacks. Free State trailed the Lions by 12 points at one stage but fought back in the final quarter to snatch victory and their third Currie Cup in as many years. It was a game equally well handled by Lawrence who, in my opinion, deserves his spot back on the IRB referees panel.

SA Rugby officials have in the past year provided us with the usual entertainment with their in-house politics and lack of sensible leadership in all fields.

The referees’ management at Saru is no different and we should expect the same from the individuals in charge in the year to come. It is sad to see the game being treated in this way with officials, who claim to be transparent and above board, covering up their intrigues and often deceiving the public who simply want to watch the game they love being properly administered.

My hope for the 2008 season is that the referees are treated fairly and honestly and that we remember that the best referee is the one that makes the fewest mistakes.

•Michael Katzenellenbogen is a former Test referee who lives in Pietermaritzburg. Your views to refscorner@mweb.co.za

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