Rugby’s crisis of faith

Frustration is the name of the game as rugby’s officials continue to get it wrong at both a micro and macro level, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Last Friday, the Hurricanes beat the Stormers 25-20 in Wellington. The Hurricanes scored 25 points in the first half, a tally which included three controversial tries. The Stormers scored 17 unanswered points in the second stanza, and may have scored more had referee Rohan Hoffmann delivered a more accurate performance with the whistle.

But this isn’t another whinge about a South African team being robbed. Forget the Stormers and their narrow loss for a moment, and consider the bigger picture. Consider what it means when a referee misses the knock-ons and the forward passes in the lead-up to a score, or when he and his assistants as well as the TMO get the decision wrong at the tryline.

Nowadays, fans and stakeholders have had no choice but to accept the breakdowns and scrums, under the current laws, are a complete lottery. What's still expected and hoped for is referees get the big calls right, such as the ruling on forward passes, knock-ons, and foul play. And yet, despite the aid of several assistants and a great deal of technology, referees still manage to get it wrong.

Remember that try by Francois Hougaard against the Crusaders at Loftus Versfeld in 2010? The Vodacom Bulls were trailing 35-33 and the full-time hooter had already sounded when reserve hooker Bandise Maku attempted to get his hands through the tackle. Replays showed the ball travelling forward out of Maku’s hands towards Hougaard on the left wing. Referee Marius Jonker allowed Hougaard’s try to stand, and that decision cost the Crusaders a win.

Five years on, and officials are still getting it wrong. Many column inches have been dedicated to the problematic concept of referee interpretation, especially at the scrum and breakdown. And yet, there have been too many instances where the man in the middle has simply failed to follow the letter of the law.

Bismarck du Plessis executed a perfect tackle on Dan Carter in the Test between the All Blacks and Springboks at Eden Park in 2013, and was subsequently sin-binned by Romain Poite. George Clancy brandished a yellow card in last year’s Rugby Championship clash in Perth, even though the alleged offender, Bryan Habana, made an innocuous tackle.

These incidents, as well as the most recent gaffes at the Cake Tin, may fuel the perception that referees and officials have something against South African players. But again, I need to stress that this is not a South African problem. It's a rugby problem. A bad call cost the Crusaders in that crunch match against the Bulls in 2010, and bad calls continue to cost teams around the world in 2015.

We saw what happened in the game between the Bulls and Sharks at Loftus earlier this year. Jesse Kriel floated a forward pass to Hougaard, and the winger went on to score an important try. The referee didn’t spot the forward pass, and so the Bulls extended their lead at a crucial juncture in the contest.

Sanzar officials made it clear at the beginning of the year that they wanted to see a more entertaining brand of rugby in the Super Rugby tournament. The inference was referees would go out of their way to conduct a free-flowing contest. Entertainment, Sanzar told us, was the name of the game.

Except it’s not. Top-flight rugby is not WWE, and there's a winner and loser after each clash. If social media forums are anything to go by, then there's still a belief among fans that the contest matters and the laws of the contest must be respected. If the flow of a game is compromised as a result, then so be it. Accuracy and consistency should be paramount.

The powers that be have much to do if they’re to restore the public’s faith in the sport. Rugby’s credibility has taken a hit in recent years, and the lawmakers as well as the officials should accept the blame. One would hope this year’s World Cup is not marred by such abject decision-making, and that accuracy is put ahead of the brand.

Photo: Marty Melville/AFP Photo

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Jon Cardinelli