‘Refs need more coaching’

Former Test referee Jonathan Kaplan tells JON CARDINELLI why the standard of officiating has been so poor and why the system of appointing and managing referees needs to change.

The list of referees and officials who make game- or even championship-shaping mistakes grows longer with each season. What can the authorities do to address a problem that is threatening the integrity of the sport?
There needs to be systemic change, that will help the individual referee achieve the results that are good for the game. Don’t get me wrong, some individuals are not good enough. And to be operating at that level when you’re not good enough … well, that exposes the inadequacy of the system.

What specific changes need to be made to the system?
Refs need more coaching, and many of them need to prepare better. At present, their preparation is poor, their game understanding is poor, and the system lets them down. Craig Joubert and Nigel Owens are the best referees in the world. I rate them very highly; they’re as good as anyone I’ve seen during my time in the game. Despite that, both had bad games last year or, more specifically, made bad decisions that influenced the outcomes of games. It’s not an indictment on them, but rather the system. If those guys can still be seen to be making errors, which are so dramatic in the context of major Test matches or finals, it’s not good enough for the game. We’re talking about professional sport. You can’t keep saying this is the way it’s always been done. You need to keep striving towards the best system that has the best possible outcome for the game.

So how do you improve the referees’ skills?
Have a dedicated coach for the top eight to 12 refs in world rugby. Allow them to get more information on a regular basis. These guys only meet three or four times a year. Yes, they’re getting emails and calls and video clips to say do this or do that, but that’s not nearly good enough at the professional level. For the amount that’s at stake in world rugby, you would think they’d spend more time together. I mean, the teams meet more times in a week than the refs do in a year! 

Coaches and players are barred from complaining about refereeing decisions, and the media has limited access to referees. As a result, the reasons related to certain refereeing decisions often remain a mystery. Is that why you, as a former referee, launched a website, ratetheref.co.za, to give the public an idea of what is happening on the field?
Absolutely. It’s a complicated game and difficult for everybody to understand. People are so fearful of saying a referee got it wrong.

Could the traditional media also be used to bridge the information gap between referees and the public? Coaches and players front the media every week to talk about the next game. Would it help to have referees at pre-match press conferences to talk about the focal points?
You don’t need press conferences for match-day referees. Some are still growing into their roles, and they don’t need to be put under extra pressure. But you do need an interface between the referees on the one hand and the coaches, players, media and spectators, who may be baffled by certain decisions, on the other. That interface is absolutely necessary to engender trust and help with the flow of information. So if someone makes a mistake, like Joubert did in the 2014 Super Rugby final, you have somebody there who can put it into context. The mistake was regrettable, but his overall performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen in a final. He was so in touch with the flow of the game and the players on the field.

The media criticises referees regularly, and even the more positive TV commentators are often at a loss to explain certain decisions. Do you agree that it’s becoming harder to follow what is happening on the field?
I think commentary teams, the media, the public and even some players are not privy to certain bits of information. If more information is provided, the potential pitfall is that a referee is made to feel bad about the errors they’ve made; but the up side is the public would feel more in touch with the game. And without the public you don’t have any of the sponsorship, you don’t have any of the interest. Some of the commentators are good, but they’re operating from the viewpoint of a player or coach. They’re not operating from the viewpoint of a referee, who understands what he’s looking for, what other referees are looking for, and how you promote it to the public. That’s what needs to be done. You can’t come in every now and then, after there’s a major refereeing error, and say ‘that’s what he should have done’. That’s called crisis management, and should only exist as an addendum to the body of information that should be a regular feature.

Let’s get into the grey areas. The powers that be want a free-flowing game that is more appealing to spectators, and are encouraging referees to manage the contest so that there are fewer stoppages. However, the laws are plentiful and complex, especially at the breakdown, and certain referees will be stricter than others. Surely the absence of a universal standard is problematic?
There needs to be a constant balance between an empathetic, management approach versus the appropriate sanction. If you keep on enforcing the hardline sanction, if there is a marginal offside transgression and you call it, what’s the point of that? Are you helping the game, the players, yourself as a ref? No, you’re not helping anybody. If you’re just going to blow the hell out of the whistle, it’s going to add no value. The referee has to strive for a balance. He also needs to help players understand what he is thinking, because things are happening very quickly.

But that doesn’t solve the problem of law applications varying from referee to referee. Would it be better if the laws were simpler? Would the refs’ jobs be easier?
The law book needs to be changed. I’ve said it, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has said it, there are many other coaches who are not saying it publicly because they’re shackled. The players want it too.

What specifically do you feel needs to change?
Certain areas of the law book. Perhaps highlight in words certain dos and don’ts of the law. It’s critically important to give the referees access to more information on a regular basis.

Someone always complains when a scrum collapses and the ref blows his whistle. And again, even the TV commentators, some of them former Test front rankers, are usually at a loss to explain why a ref made a call.
It's the most vexing issue in the game. Either referees are being asked to make decisions so that resets don’t eat the clock away, or they are being too empathetic to the players. In the first instance, we gain a lot of time for ball in play, which is potentially good for the game. The downside to this is you have decision-making that is not always accurate. Penalties are being converted into points, which is shifting momentum in the game. Teams are milking those penalties. I have concerns that this will be prevalent at this year’s World Cup in England. In the second instance, where referees are far too empathetic, the result is more resets and less ball in play.

What are your thoughts on the perceived differences between northern and southern hemisphere refs? Do teams need to prepare differently for the coming World Cup if they know that, say, a northern hemisphere official will be handling a specific game?
I don’t really buy the whole north versus south thing. As an example, Owens [Wales] and Joubert [South Africa] are very similar in their approach. I love the way they prepare and communicate to the players and public. They take risks to get the best out of the game. So I don’t buy that, as they are from different countries and cultures. Certainly, it differs from ref to ref, and in that regard there must be change. It concerns me that there is such a gulf between the top refs and the others operating at that level. There should be 12 refs who are in the same class as Joubert and Owens.

Given that a Test ref has to be neutral, the Springboks and Wales would then be at a disadvantage if they contested this year’s World Cup final?
That is a massive concern. Some people won’t like that I said that, but the reality is if you asked most teams, that’s what they’d say too. It’s sad.

Are you at all optimistic that things will change for the better, if not in the near future, then in the next few years?
I’m hopeful, and I would love to be involved and make a difference. I’ve approached World Rugby, Saru and Sanzar, and up until now all three have said they don’t have the facility for me to be a part of their organisation. I wish that change could be effected in a more progressive manner. I believe it is critical to have that ‘interface’. The game needs it. Nobody can tell me the game is easy for the public to understand. Can anyone tell me the system is operating at an optimum level? Crisis management is not the way forward. We need systemic change, something that is more thorough and more engaging for the public.

– This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli