‘Human error’ doesn’t cut it

Rugby should have an on-field challenge system to prevent match-altering errors from referees, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

This hasn’t been a good past few days for South African rugby. The SA Schools side lost to England in Stellenbosch, referee Jaco Peyper admitted he whistled a shocker to deny the All Blacks a record 18th successive Test win in Sydney, and another South African referee, Craig Joubert, reportedly called Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder to say he got it wrong in penalising Richie McCaw in the last minute of the Super Rugby final.

Peyper’s bizarre scrum rulings in favour of Australia’s vulnerable pack were decisive in determining the result – a 12-12 draw – and Joubert’s decision cost the Crusaders the title as the Waratahs converted Joubert’s charity into three points and a one-point win.

It’s somehow just not good enough for referees at this level to cock it up in the manner we have seen from Peyper and Joubert, but even worse is the lack of consequences for producing the escape card of 'human error'. 'Human error' doesn’t cut it in these two instances because the substandard officiating cost one team a Super Rugby title and the other a world record.

Referees, by way of interpretation, have too much power. The game, with the simple in referee application invariably made complicated, does players and coaches a disservice and always excuses the referee. There have to be consequences, or alternatively there has to be a way to challenge a ruling if it's obviously wrong. Rugby should have an on-field challenge in place, even if it's only one per team. The captain challenges and gets it right and his team still has one challenge.

He gets it wrong and there is no challenge again in the game.

The pressure is on the referee to lift the standard of his officiating but the greatest positive is that the referee gets some form of protection because the wrong call can be overturned on the field of play.

The Crusaders, as an example, could have challenged the decision to penalise McCaw. The challenge would have been successful and the wrong decision would not have cost a team the championship.

Joubert’s phone call does nothing to change the result. It sucks for the players and especially for the coaching staff. The lack of a challenge system also asks more questions of rugby’s stagnation as a professional sport.

Test and Super Rugby is a profession more than an indulgence, so why indulge those officials who get it so badly wrong in some of the biggest matches of the season?

Similarly, why indulge the substandard performance of the Springboks against the Pumas at the weekend? The Boks won by two points thanks to Morné Steyn’s 77th-minute penalty.

Applaud the character of the Boks to win the match after trailing 28-16 with less than 20 minutes to go but don’t applaud an afternoon’s rugby in which the Boks were physically inferior, tactically poor and generally limp in their attack.

Better teams would have closed out the match. The Pumas, ranked 12th in the world, did not have the belief to win. They have not won a match in the Rugby Championship and when the situation demanded calm, they sought the chaotic and paid the price.

It was their game to lose given their dominance at the set piece and in the collisions. The Boks were beaten to a pulp in the scrum exchange. So, too, in the contact areas, and they again lacked the attacking threat so many teams call on when their pack is inferior.

The Boks, when the forwards march more than mark time, are a ferocious side. They tower in presence. They intimidate and their backs appear as dangerous as any. But the moment a team physically stands its ground or, worse, forces the Boks into submission, there is nothing mean and menacing about the green machine.

The Pumas are a difficult team to beat in Argentina but the manner of the Bok performance was so disjointed and dazed that the strength of the present Boks appeared a cocktail of media hype and supporter hope.

We know the Boks deserve to be the best of the teams chasing the All Blacks as the game’s premier Test team. We know this because of the Boks’ consistency in winning in the past 24 months. But anyone watching what happened in Auckland when the All Blacks smashed Australia 51-20 would be justifiable in feeling despair, although it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate.

The All Blacks, this season, have sneaked wins over England and drew 12-12 against Australia in Sydney. Their response was to produce one of the great attacking displays in scoring 51 points against the same Australia this past Saturday.

The pressure must be on the Boks to respond with a performance as emphatic if not necessarily as complete.

There has to be a demand for consequences, even if consequences aren’t something familiar to SA’s supposed two leading rugby referees.

Photo: Matt King/Getty Images