Schalk’s yellow card incident turns spotlight on SA referees

2008-03-01 00:00

We are only in the second week of the Super 14 and the referees have taken centre stage in the world’s greatest regional competition.

All eyes have been focused on the Schalk Burger incident at the Shark Tank on Saturday. Burger was cited by the match commissioner for his antics after he was yellow-carded by New Zealand referee Kelvin Deaker for his involvement in a fracas in the Sharks vs Stormers match.

Burger left the field gesturing at touch judge Willie Roos, who Burger believed had a hand in convincing Deaker to yellow card him. The fact is that Roos added very little to what Deaker had already decided and the punishment he was going to hand out to Burger.

Roos is obliged to flag if he sees any foul play and did so. But this is not what this incident is all about. There is much more to Burger’s reaction — one that could have been avoided if South African Rugby Union’s (Saru) referees’ department was alert enough.

Willie Roos was the referee in the opening round match between the Stormers and the Bulls and was heavily criticised from all quarters for his performance. Even Crusaders’ coach Robbie Deans lambasted Roos’s performance in blowing the new experimental laws. Stormers CEO Rob Wagner went as far as to lodge an official complaint with Saru manager of referees, Andre Watson. Roos’s performance came under immense criticism the whole week in the Cape newspapers and Burger, of course, would have been aware of the general unhappiness.

This surely added to Burger’s anger when he was carded —though what he did was inexcusable for a seasoned international.

Still, why was Roos running touch at King’s Park? Saru knew that the presence of Roos on the touchline would not have been well-received by the Stormers, yet they did nothing to move Roos to another game. I am of the opinion that if someone else had been on the touchline, the Burger incident would never have taken place. Watson’s insensitivity and inability to be proactive has cost one of his referees the respect of the players and coaches and probably damaged his career.

Roos is not the only South African referee suffering the slings and arrows. Marius Jonker has come in for heavy flak from Australia and New Zealand for his handling of the weekend Waratahs-Chiefs match in Hamilton. Rugby writer Lain Payton refers to a “trigger happy” Jonker who made a plethora of errors in a closely-contested match.

Waratah flanker Rocky Elsom appeared to have held up Chiefs wing Sitiveni Sivivato after he ran 50 metres to score a match-winning try.

“I thought I held him up because the ball was stuck between my legs,” Elsom said later, and TV replays seem to support him.

But the criticism did not stop there. The usually reticent Phil Waugh (NSW captain) blamed Jonker for making some “baffling” decisions during the match. Waugh referred back to the Reds vs Highlanders match the previous week when Jonker awarded two tries under dubious circumstances and said that he expected more from him. What is Saru going to do? Are they going to suspend Jonker, as they did with touch judges Deon van Blommestein and Louis Mzomba when they were deemed to have made a mistake in signalling that a penalty had cleared the cross-bar, or are there different rules for different folk?

The performance of Mlungiseli Mdashe in the Wildebeest-Pumas Vodacom Cup game on Saturday at King’s Park crowned a forgettable weekend for the referees at Saru. Unfortunately, for the referee, his debut was caught on television and his performance with the whistle matched the ineptness of the Wildebeest players’ handling.

Mdashe clearly needs intense coaching but the players and the paying public deserve better.

Saru must surely start looking at what is happening with its referees and at its structures and this problem starts right at the top — with the administration of South African rugby referees, which sacrifices merit on the altar of expedience.

•Michael Katzenellenbogen is a former Test referee living in Pietermaritzburg. Your views to

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