Former Test referee Jonathan Kaplan on recent controversial calls, the role of the TMO, the benefits of a two-referee system and having only two South African referees on World Rugby’s panel.
Should England flyhalf Owen Farrell have been penalised for his tackle on Bok centre André Esterhuizen at Twickenham? And if so, did it also warrant a yellow card?
I have no doubt it was the wrong decision not to penalise him. If you look at the standards that had been set before that tackle, it was a penalty and yellow card. I do agree with World Rugby that there was no citing. I don’t think it met the threshold of a red card.
In your opinion, why was Farrell’s tackle dangerous?
There’s no question Farrell won the collision. Any contact on the chest, which then rides up and hits the chin, or any part of the head that causes any kind of whiplash is a dangerous tackle. It does not need to be defined as a shoulder charge. A dangerous tackle is anything that could put the health of the ball-carrier at risk. In this case, I don’t believe the arms were ever in play until after the tackle was affected, and then they came around as an afterthought.
Should referee Angus Gardner have taken more time to review the incident and allowed the TMO to have his say, instead of watching the replay on the big screen and making an immediate decision?
I’m not going to talk hypothetically about why I think he went on the wrong track. All I can say is I don’t believe it was the right call and what I would have done and what I think most referees would have done. I don’t think Gardner had a bad game. I’ve said on various platforms that he’s one of the most improved referees on the circuit.
How do you feel about Bok coach Rassie Erasmus’ tongue-in-cheek response to the Farrell incident at the post-match press conference and with that training video? Did he go too far?
He can say whatever he wants. He was clearly upset about it and decided to take an approach similar to Brendan Venter’s a few years ago where he answered a TV reporter’s questions in a very comical way. Rassie avoided trouble as a coach by not being critical of the referee and putting a video together. It was his way of showing how wrong the decision was.
You’ve said that Sam Underhill’s late try against the All Blacks, which probably would have won the match for England, should not have been disallowed for offside at the previous ruck. Why?
I see both sides of the argument. However, my take is if you look at the first part of the equation, a ruck was formed. But was Courtney Lawes ever onside? Did he come into an onside position before then taking part in play? The answer is 100% yes. It is my clear contention that the ball was not in the ruck; the ball has clear separation from the ruck and there is no one standing over it. If the ball is no longer in the ruck, then it is available for everybody and the scrumhalf is dithering and taking his time. When it has left the ruck, surely it is available to be played by everyone? Otherwise what you are going to get is the ball leaving the ruck, with nobody on or over the ball, and those who are or were in an onside position must just wait until that scrumhalf or acting scrumhalf decides what he wants to do with it. That’s absurd.
Were you surprised World Rugby came out and said the correct decision had been made with that offside ruling, having refused to comment on the Farrell tackle?
I’m in favour of World Rugby placing more importance on public interaction and I applaud them for coming out with a statement. I think it’s beneficial for the public to have access to laws and applicable laws. I’m not going to criticise World Rugby for doing something that I have long said it should be doing, which is being helpful towards the public.
In light of these two incidents, how do you feel about World Rugby’s recent trial which limited the TMO’s powers?
World Rugby understands that technology is here to stay. It is trying to find a recipe that works. I don’t have firm opinions as to who should lead the discussion.
How can the TMO system be improved?
I have a lot of ideas, ranging from the personnel World Rugby employs to the trust between the referee and TMO. In some respects you always get people who will quite rightly claim the TMO system still produces all these mistakes, so what is the point of using it in the first place? That does not mean you should not use it. It just means you should refine the system.
France fullback Benjamin Fall was controversially red-carded for making contact with All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett in the air in June. Was this area of the game officiated properly in 2018 and how can it be made less of a grey area?
I understand why World Rugby is doing it. The safety of the player is paramount, so sometimes the laws are being led by medical opinion. If you are going to get outcome-based in respect to your decision-making – in other words, if the same action by the defender leads to two different results – you as a referee become more robotic and are not allowed to judge the actions of the defender. That’s why I have said that I’m not a massive fan of outcome-based laws. A defender can do something completely innocently and end up with a red card. The referee himself is not wrong; all he is doing is applying what he has been asked to.
Has World Rugby’s drive for player safety led to an over-sanitisation of the game, as some have suggested?
World Rugby has its priorities right. It just has to understand that sometimes, because this is a contact sport, things are going to happen that are undesirable. Referees have become more robotic and process-driven and there are very few characters who are still able to shine through, like Nigel Owens, who is able to mesh his experience in the game and status as a comedian.
England coach Eddie Jones has called for a two-referee system, which was trialled in the Varsity Cup. Do you think the system is workable at a higher level?
Yes, I have been saying this for years. You take out ego, you take out a referee’s unconscious preferences. With a refereeing team it is more difficult for an individual to imprint his personality on the game. Obviously you are going to get a few teething problems and you may have to put referees together who are compatible with each other. Logistically and financially it may be an issue for the powers that be, but I don’t think it would be difficult to refine that system to become better than the system that is in place at the moment.
Only two South African referees – Rasta Rasivhenge and Jaco Peyper – were appointed for the November Tests. How do you feel about the number of referees coming through the SA Rugby system, compared to when you were part of it?
Some will say you lose a lot of talent in a short space of time and then it’s difficult to replace that experience. Others will say we should have been planning for that long before the crisis hit. From a South African perspective, we have a reasonably good rugby culture. The Currie Cup has always been a good place to test referees. I’m proud of the referees who have succeeded and then stay there. But it’s disappointing that we only have two referees on the World Rugby panel. I’m not in the know as to who’s been identified as coming through the ranks. I have seen some guys with potential, but it is a bit of a worry.
What are some of the issues preventing South Africa from getting more and better referees on to the Test scene?
We had a good run with some top referees for about 20 years, but we seem to have fallen right off the pace. Whether that’s to do with leadership, selection, planning and preparation, adequate and consistent training, the transfer of culture from our senior refs to the next tier or the demise of our local tournament, the Currie Cup, is a moot point. Perhaps it’s just an underperforming generation.
Interview by Dylan Jack
– This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.