Blowing the Whistle: Refs against the game’s grain

2008-05-02 00:00

In Sharks country there has been an outcry against the refereeing over the past two weeks and it seems that there is newfound hatred brewing among rugby supporters.

There was frustration in South Africa against New Zealand referee Kelvin Deaker when he blew a knock-on that wasn’t and "cost" the Lions the match against the Western Force in Johannesburg. There nearly was an international incident over the below-par performances of local referee Willie Roos when the Stormers lost to the now defunct Bulls in Cape Town and when the Brumbies lost to the Hurricanes in Canberra.

Then there was an outcry in New Zealand against Australian Paul Marks when the Hurricanes and the Sharks drew in Wellington. Now, back in South Africa, anger against New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence has boiled over into a public spat between rugby gurus and SA referees and anger at manager Andre Watson for his apparent lack of policing these less than competent overseas referees.

In the match in Canberra, Lawrence lost his cool with Ryan Kankowski and by his actions put the Sharks under pressure, which cost the Sharks dearly at the end. It would seem that both the referee and the player behaved poorly and let the game of rugby down. In my opinion, Lawrence could have been much better, but in the confrontation between referee and player there is always one winner: the referee.

Then there was the Steyn incident that broke the camel’s back. At this level, it is the art of communicating effectively with players that is the ultimate survival tool for a referee.

Not only to communicate to the player, but also the spectators, who judge his antics more severely. In this Lawrence failed dismally. So much so that Dan Retief (Boots and All) confronted Andre Watson and uttered his anger at the performance of Lawrence only to get the diplomatic answer: "His performance comes under review this week and I will give you feedback". It has now been two weeks since the game and no feedback has been given to the press. As usual, Saru hopes the issue will go away and that time will heal all wounds.

The fact is the Sharks could ill afford a loss to the antics of a frustrated referee and the label that goes with that as sour losers. It is time that Saru answers to the rugby public on how it can accommodate such incompetence. And where do we go from here, as the situation has gone from bad to worse and nothing seems to be done to remedy the problem.

In Kimberley last weekend, the Cheetahs took on the Hurricanes and came horribly second, but only after a crucial error by newcomer referee Ian Smith of Australia. The game was close until the Hurricanes scored in the 17th minute with a try by Jason Eaton.

Seconds after the restart, the Cheetahs were on attack and Juan Smith broke the line and was tackled.

As he was lying on the ground, he flung the ball backwards to his support players, only for Rodney So’oialo to intercept and run in unopposed. Nobody protested, not even the commentators. The fact is that So’oialo was offside at the tackle under the new ELVs that Sanzar introduced, something that Smith also forgot. Every game has a game-breaking decision and this one was critical at Kimberley. But you have to forgive him: after all, he is only Australian.

What would the week be without some controversy in the greatest game we play? The TMO calls have been few and far between in every game, but the last fortnight we saw plenty of calls in the Stormers versus Cheetahs clash at Newlands. Four calls in 10 minutes to be exact.

In one incident, Tonderai Chavhanga of the Stormers raced down the touchline and Jongi Nokwe of the Cheetahs tried to bundle him into touch. Chavhanga miraculously managed to ground the ball over the Cheetahs’ line. When he did so most of his body was beyond the touchline, but was he in touch?

Law 19 definition: In touch.

The ball is in touch when a player is carrying it and the ball carrier (or the ball) touches the touchline or the ground beyond the touchline. The place where the ball carrier (or the ball) touched or crossed the touchline is where it went into touch.

Now in this specific incident, Chavhanga did not touch the ground beyond the touchline. Chavhanga actually lies on Nokwe, who is in touch when the ball is grounded.

Chavhanga was the ball carrier. To be in touch, he needed to be in contact with the touchline or the ground beyond it. There is nothing about being in contact with somebody who is in touch.

The TMO did not award the try at the time, but according to the laws of the game there would have been very little wrong in awarding it.

oYour views to

oMichael Katzenellenbogen is a former Test referee who lives in Pietermaritzburg.

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