Final must have neutral officials

Sanzaar must appoint neutral officials for the Super Rugby final between the Lions and Crusaders at Ellis Park, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.

On Saturday, the Lions overturned a 22-3 deficit in their semi-final against the Hurricanes to claim a famous 44-29 victory.

The Canes started to tire at the end of the first half, and missed a couple of try-scoring opportunities that would probably have finished off the Lions. They also allowed their opponents to score a morale-boosting try just before the break. 

The effect of a long fight across the Indian Ocean and the altitude took its toll on the defending champions in the second half, while the Lions successfully changed tactics, playing a more direct, pragmatic game that resulted in 34 points.

Yet instead of the above being discussed in depth, it was the performance of the South African officials that attracted the most attention in some media outlets, especially in New Zealand.

The most talked-about incident of the match was referee Jaco Peyper's decision to yellow card Beauden Barrett in the 58th minute when the Canes were leading 29-22. Ruan Combrinck had broken away into the Canes 22 before being tackled by Barrett 6m out from the tryline.

While trying to move away from the ruck, Barrett kicked the ball away – intentionally or unintentionally, depending on who you ask – costing the Lions a great try-scoring opportunity.

Peyper insisted that Barrett was on the wrong side and because he'd had an influence on the game, had to be penalised. However, the South African referee also believe it warranted a yellow card, much to Canes captain Dane Coles' disgust, and the Lions would score 17 points while the flyhalf was off.

The Canes were also unhappy when Peyer chose not to refer Malcolm Marx's 53rd-minute try from a lineout driving maul to the TMO after he had been told by South African assistant referee Rasta Rasivhenge that the ball had definitely been grounded. Peyper asked Rasivhenge if he should check with the TMO, and he said no. Rasivhenge's supporters will say he did well to back himself and make the call, while his detractors will say he should have just let the TMO check it in such a big game.

Peyper and Rasivhenge got both of the above decisions correct in my view, but because they are South African, and the decisions went the way of the South African side against a New Zealand side, there was perceived bias.

The only way to prevent accusations of bias is to appoint neutral officials. 

Sanzaar scrapped its policy of having neutral officials in Super Rugby to save on travel and accommodation costs, but surely a final played in front of 60,000 fans is worth the expense?

Angus Gardner, Australia's best referee, must take charge of Saturday's decider at Ellis Park and there should be Australian, Argentinian or Japanese assistant referees and TMO (please, Sanzaar, just try to find someone other than George Ayoub, who is the worst TMO in world rugby).

That will ensure that if the Crusaders do lose, it will be because the Lions were the better team and not because of bias – conscious or subconscious – from local officials.

And if you are a South African who doesn't think there should be neutral officials for this final, just ask yourself how you would feel if it was being played in Christchurch instead, with four New Zealand officials.

OPINION: Lions have final lesson to learn

Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

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