Book review – Calling it like it is: The Jonathan Kaplan Story

2014-07-18 19:00

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Referees are probably the most maligned and criticised people in sport. Dan Retief reviews Jonathan Kaplan’s frank and forthright biography

Call It Like It Is – The Jonathan Kaplan Story as told to Mike Behr

Zebra Press

R185 from

320 pages

Jonathan Kaplan can justly claim to have had the best view of top-class rugby of everyone on the oval planet.

You can’t get closer to the game than the referee, and Kaplan, who retired last year after a stellar ­career, was in close attendance in a record 70 internationals, 107 Super Rugby matches and 161 Currie Cup games. All this makes him the game’s most prolific match official.

His is the story of a young man with a deep passion and love of the game, but one who simply was not physically big enough to make it among the Goliaths who populate modern rugby.

Kaplan found a way to be ­involved by becoming a referee and in his biography, he gives a fascinating insight into the solitary life of a member of the much-maligned clan who week in and week out hold the dreams and ­ambitions of players and fans in their grasp, who endure more strident criticism than praise, but without whom the game cannot be played.

As much as any player, Kaplan’s story is one of being driven – to be the best, to overcome setbacks and obstacles, to be recognised and rewarded, to gain respect, to turn out a good product, and to be true to his beliefs and principles.

Like a player, Kaplan suffered injuries that could have snuffed out his dream. Like a player, he often had to rely on the whims of a ­selection panel and, like a player, he sometimes had to bend before unfair and unreasonable people, and rules.

Kaplan reveals a streak of self-obsession, without which it would probably not have been possible to succeed in the intensely interrogated field he chose, and a stubbornness and determination to be his own man – a trait that did not always endear him to his managers, but meant he came to be seen as a referee who would not buckle under pressure.

He could be trusted to bravely make the correct decision even if it was at odds with what 70?000 fans wanted. As he says: “I never tried to curry favour with the crowd or administrators, I had a job to do and I could do it quite clinically while painting a pretty decent picture for everyone to enjoy.”

Kaplan’s story is sometimes uncomfortably frank, lending humanity to the virtual world of what most fans see as the robotic man with the whistle.

He gives insight into coming up the hard way in the badlands of Transvaal club rugby, the long, lonely absences from home, the tight-knit brotherhood that exists among top referees and the torment of making mistakes.

He reveals which captains pushed him the hardest; the conflicts that sometimes occurred between officials; the fact that some of the laws of the game need overhauling; and, interestingly, that only two Springboks make it into his “World XV” of the best players he took charge of – although there are three more Boks on the bench.

So, I asked him, what makes a good referee? “Your heart has to be in the right place,” he shot back. “I don’t think this is a game for everyone, not a role for every person. You have to have a skill set that is suitable for this. You can’t be too sensitive, you’ve got to be pretty thick-skinned, you’ve got to be able to take criticism…” And, he might have added, you’ve got to be able to “call it like it is”.

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