New Super 14 laws depend far too much on refs’ interpretations

2008-02-23 00:00

WITH the first weekend past in the Super 14, we had a mixed bag of reactions to the new experimental laws. Headlines were made from making the game faster to ruining the structures of set phases. One thing that was clear was that certain referees had the knack of applying the rules fairly and others were just plain crap. The fact is that we had two Kiwis and five South Africans in action and the reviews varied greatly.

On Friday, Mark Lawrence kicked off the Super 14 with a flawless performance at a rain-soaked Jade Stadium in Christchurch in the match between the Crusaders and the Brumbies. Here you had a blend of the new with the old as Lawrence walked away with great reviews from the players and spectators. The same could not be said about Kelvin Deacker (New Zealand), who refereed the Sharks’ game on Friday night. Firstly, I would love to know from Saru referees why we must be happy with New Zealand sending out their number four and five to referee the all-important first round of matches. It is insulting to have better referees sitting in New Zealand doing nothing when so much is at stake. It would seem Deaker made only one poor decision on Friday night: he pitched up at the Shark Tank.

Deaker had every opportunity to create a spectacle of a game on Friday, but chose to limit the game as the teams ran out of ideas on how to score tries. The poor handling of the Sharks aside, the five-metre offside line at the scrum was hardly enforced and the space was quickly closed down by the Force. When Kankowski picked up the ball at the base of the scrum, the backline of the Force closed him down virtually simultaneously. The decision to change the penalty for slowing the ball down at the ruck to a free-kick has backfired on Sanzar as most teams got away with murder at the breakdown. The Force were no exception as they slowed the game down whenever the Sharks got into their 22-metre area. Deaker should have had the balls to dish out penalties rather than the odd free-kick as it significantly hampered the Sharks.

If Deaker was bad, then you must feel for Willie Roos, who refereed the Stormers versus Bulls at Newlands on Saturday. Here is a referee that was lucky to keep his place on the panel at the end of last season and given a cracker to get his career back on track. Well, after Saturday, I think it might be the last of Willie Roos for a while if you go by what Tappe Henning had to say. This is the first time a referee was openly criticised by a fellow referee/assessor in the press. Henning has been quoted as saying that the Bulls’ first try by Brian Habana was not a try. Andre Watson, manager of referees at Saru, agreed with Roos, but criticised him for not awarding the Stormers a penalty try in the first half of the match when Wikus van Heerden cynically dived on a ball still in the scrum on the Bulls goal-line. In my opinion, Henning was correct in his assumption of the Habana try.

In the 37th minute of the game, the Bulls set up a drive on the Stormers goal-line. From the ensuing maul the ball squirted out and the Stormers gained possession and set up a ruck. Wynand Olivier of the Bulls then went on his knees and stuck his hands underneath the Stormers players and wrenched the ball back on to the Bulls’ side. Totally illegal. The ball was then fed to Habana, who dived over for a soft try. This was a game-breaking call as the Bulls ran out 16-9 victors.

Watson did not stop there and criticised all three match officials for being too lenient on foul play. The fact is that Roos should never have been appointed to referee this vital encounter, which just goes to show that the depth of SA referees is very limited. Someone obviously forgot to give Willie Roos a copy of the new laws. It must have been a cold week in hell at the Saru referees’ offices this week as Roos, Henning and Watson all share office space in Johannesburg.

As for the new ELVs, the reaction was mixed. Lots of people are reserving judgment until after the first couple of weeks have passed. New Zealand appears to have adapted best to the new laws, but little good was said in SA. Rassie Erasmus, the Stormers’ coach, likes the new laws, but he was unhappy about the slowing down of play at the breakdown points.

“This match was the only one in which the ball emerged slowly from breakdown points,” he said “When the ball is not emerging for up to six seconds, it means someone is holding on to it.”

In the end, the success of the new laws rely far too much on the interpretation of the referee. Let’s give it some time and see, but as the statistics show, very little has changed from the opening round in 2007. The total number of tries scored in 2007 was 23, and in 2008 it has been 24. Total average game time per match: 28 minutes in 2007 to 30 minutes in 2008.

•Michael Katzenellenbogen is a former Test and Super rugby referee and lives in

Pietermaritzburg.

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