World number one

2011-10-18 00:00

A CAREER in rugby refereeing which started when he was a spindly 15-year-old on the backfields of Maritzburg College will reach its glorious summit when Craig Joubert takes charge of the Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and France in Auckland on Sunday.

The RWC has not been a particularly happy one for referees, as South African and Welsh supporters will tell you, but Craig has impressed friend and foe with his calmness and feel for the game.

His appointment yesterday by the International Rugby Board did come as a surprise. When Craig and Irishman Alain Rolland (Ireland) were appointed to handle the weekend’s semi-finals, it was widely believed that either­ leading England referee Wayne Barnes or Jonathan Kaplan, South Africa­’s most experienced official, was being held back for the final.

But Craig, who turns 34 next month, has leapfrogged both, following his display in the Australian-New Zealand semi-final on Sunday when he handled the highly charged contest with composure and accuracy.

IRB referee manager Paddy O’Brien­ praised Craig’s performance.

“I would like to congratulate Craig on his selection which is entirely on merit.”

Craig, only the second South African — after André Watson — to referee a World Cup final, said yesterday that he is overjoyed at his appointment.

“It is an enormous honour to get the final. I’m now really looking forward to getting out there and enjoying the occasion.”

Craig has followed in the footsteps of his late father Des, who was a popular Pietermaritzburg schoolteacher and rugby referee. Craig has been a referee for more than half his life and, as a teenager at College, attended courses and took charge of school games. He then moved on to club rugby, and encouraged by his mother Lynne, has made a rapid climb to the very top of the ladder.

“I saw the fun my dad had as a referee and it enabled him to extend his ties with the game beyond his years as a player,” Craig said.

He said the greatest challenge was moving from schoolboy rugby to club rugby.

“It was a change from where the players call you ‘sir’ and dirty play results in a trip to the headmaster’s office to the club game at Woodburn where the coach encourages his players to pressure the referee.”

Man management, he believes, is critical to handling any game and he had, in his dad, the very best teacher.

“The trick, he said, “is to be assertive but also respectful.”

Des was a competent provincial referee. Genial and cheerful, he handled games firmly, but with a smile.

Once, in charge of a first-division club game at Woodburn Stadium, he had a brush with DHS Old Boys’ former Natal captain Peter Edmunds with the streetwise flank trying to give Des a rough ride.

“Come on, ref, come on, you missed another forward pass. Ref, that’s offside.”

And so the comments flew until eventually Des brought play to a halt and called Edmunds aside.

“Look, I’ve been watching you. You’re a flank but you’ve now missed three tackles, dropped the ball twice and your positional play is shocking. Why don’t you worry about your game and I’ll take care of mine?”

Edmunds did not say another word during the game and after the final whistle he went to the referees’ change room and apologised to Des.

“That the first time I have ever been chirped by a referee,” he told him.

Craig has followed a similar approach to his refereeing and his career has blossomed at Currie Cup, Super Rugby and international level.

Craig studied business finance at the University of KZN after leaving College and spent five years in corporate banking before taking up refereeing on a professional basis.

He readily admits that he is learning all the time and is particularly interested in the nefarious activities in the dark underworld of the scrum. He has spent hours at Sharks practices, watching the scrum at work, talking to hookers, props and coaches, and trying to grasp the intricacies of scrummaging.

Other lessons have even been forced on him.

“In 2007, I was appointed to referee the All Black international against France in New Zealand and had the weekend off before flying out on the Monday.

“Maritzburg College were playing Affies from Pretoria that weekend and I was keen to go back there and ref. The Midlands Referee Society appointed me to handle the U15A game at 10.30 am and it was a wonderful contest.

“After the game I was approached by a big Affies parent­, obviously a guy who had spent many long hours in the front row. He asked what I knew about scrummaging. ‘I know a little,’ I replied. ‘But maybe you’ve noticed something that you can help me with.’

“He said I wouldn’t understand and he would show me. Before I knew what was happening he and I were packing down on the side of the field while a sizeable crowd gathered to watch me getting a practical scrumming session from an U15 Affies’ parent.

“Clearly he had no idea who he was teaching but I hope he saw me referee the Test match the next weekend and noticed an improvement in the way I handled the scrums.”

One of Craig’s more embarrassing moments was in a Currie Cup game in 2009 when Golden Lions flyhalf Earl Rose, not looking where he was passing, tossed the ball directly to Craig.

“I play a lot of touch rugby so I instinctively caught it and started running. The Bulls captain was Wikus van Heerden and he immediately yelled ‘tackle him’. When I saw Danie Rossouw lining me up I stopped. We all had a good laugh, but I have learnt to stay a little further from the main action.”

Craig has learnt other tricks on the international rugby circuit. He has developed into an accomplished golfer, plays off a seven handicap and already has two holes in one, although there is no video evidence.

He is “addicted” to poker and regards himself as a hustler.

And it is that instinct to make the right call, to maintain composure and keep a poker face under fierce pressure which turns an ordinary club referee into someone as exceptional as Craig Joubert.

Craig will be in charge of unquestionably the biggest game in New Zealand rugby history at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday. The All Blacks are the overwhelming favourites, the French are at their most unpredictable, but this final, the glittering showpiece of world rugby, is in good hands.

This appointment is a tribute to Craig Joubert ... and his dad.

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