Man in the middle

2010-09-25 00:00

IT turns out that referees are human after all, with kids and concerns and cravings for the odd round of golf.

Wednesday morning gave me a chance to meet Craig Joubert, the 32-year-old international rugby referee who occasionally intercepts passes and thinks he is one of the players himself.

But only occasionally.

Joubert and I had been invited by St Charles Preparatory for their “Words Week”. I could see why a meeting with the well-travelled Joubert was warranted, but the invitation extended to yours truly was somewhat of a surprise for, well, yours truly.

As it was, we had a blast. It’s not often that primary schoolchildren are held spellbound for over an hour, but Joubert has clearly learnt much from schooling Bakkies Botha and friends on the intricacies of etiquette.

When he hangs up the whistle, surely a career in emceeing — or presenting — beckons.

In all the fuss of having an audience at a regular interview, I just about remembered to scribble down some notes, and it turns out that being a referee is not all boos and blues — there are freebies, flat-beds and regular frights chucked in for good effect.

“When you have a guy as big as Bakkies wanting an explanation, it can be scary,”Joubert admitted.

Which is where the sensible laws of rugby come in, unlike the circus that is football.

“Respect is one of the big things in our game, and I am glad that we don’t have half the team running at a ref every time we make a decision,” he said.

Of course, rugby will never be quite as big as football, but Joubert is at a loss for words that Fifa have let the beautiful game remain primitive without the use of technology.

“That goal for England at the World Cup just showed how much they need to get with the times,” Joubert said.

Talk of the World Cup draws a wince from the whistle-blower, as he was all set for a day at the Moses Mabhida Stadium until duty called.

“I was going to go and see Brazil against Portugal with some friends, but then the IRB called and said I had to fly off to New Zealand,” he explained.

Of course those of us that were there can happily tell him that he didn’t miss much, but Joubert said he is just as as much of a sports nut as the next guy.

“I love all the big events, and I ended up watching that game on TV at some ungodly hour in New Zealand.”

Don’t feel too sorry for him, though, because “Jouba’s” job has seen him jet to all sorts of exotic locations.

On a flat bed too, as he smugly revealed to gasps from his audience.

Before joining the IRB panel, Joubert was on the Sevens international circuit.

“Sevens was great because they wanted to take the game to places that were new to the game. So I went off to Las Vegas, to Hong Kong and to parts of Europe. It was great,” he said.

Since then, Joubert has visited just about all of the world’s main rugby cathedrals.

His first international gig was in Connecticut, however.

“It wasn’t the biggest game ever, but it was a massive day for me.”

Joubert says his passion for the game was cultivated by his late father’s own refereeing career.

“Dad would go off on Saturdays and then you would see him and the guys in the pub afterwards. That camaraderie was a big draw, and I hoped that one day I would have that.”

Of course, Joubert has got that and plenty more.

He handled the recent Super 14 final in Soweto, and he has quickly put down the day as his biggest achievement in the game, so far.

“The whole experience was unforgettable. From the excitement and hype around the country, and then to the actual day itself. It was bigger than anything you could imagine.”

And then there were the vuvuzelas, all 40 000 of them blaring through 80 minutes.

“I had to shout to guys standing a few metres away, but it was all part of the experience.”

As was the run-in with Schalk Burger.

“There were some things that were said after the game, which ususally happens in such a big game. Some refs choose not to read what people think of them, but I believe that it helps you to learn from your mistakes at the end of the day.”

Joubert added that he and Burger are going for coffee next week, ahead of Western Province’s pivotal clash with the Bulls in Cape Town. Same cast, different location.

“It is obviously important to know that we have moved on from there, and that there are no ill-feelings,” Joubert said.

The temptation to bring a mediator was there, but he reckons the Stormers and WP skipper will behave.

“You know, most of the players are great guys off the field. Really humble and considerate.”

Joubert, a Bok supporter himself — good thing he doesn’t ref for them, then — says that despite their troubles this year, the world champions will do well in New Zealand next year.

“Remember, in 2006 we also had a bad year. I think the guys’ experience will be crucial come the World Cup.”

Of course, a chat about the Boks wouldn’t be complete without mention of you-know-who.

“From what I hear, the players have a great respect for Peter de Villiers.

“Obviously he has said some things off the field that haven’t been too wise, but I think one has to consider that he must be doing something right if experienced guys like Victor Matfield and John Smit believe in him.”

Joubert has his own ambitions for 2011.

“I want to referee in a World Cup,” he states. “I went to the 2007 event, but that was only as a touch judge.”

Next year, the IRB will pick 10 referees to man the entire tournament.

As long as Joubert remembers not to intercept a pass the next time he sees a gap, he has every chance to be one of the men in the middle in New Zealand.

When you have a guy as big as Bakkies wanting an explanation, it can be scary.

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