Over the years, I’ve observed and listened to many referees, firstly as a player, and for the last 20 years as a commentator. Referees are wired, and commentators hear everything they say, including their justification for decisions made in real time.
This is the thing, of course.
The referee has to make a call instantly on what he thinks he has seen, and to a degree it is the same for opinionated commentators.
Often we’re proven to be incorrect on replays where all and sundry have the opportunity to see exactly what happened from several angles, often in slow motion.
So it’s a hard job being a referee and getting it all right.
The thing that concerns me most about referees is that they hold the power so firmly. A referee can decide the outcome of a game, and that affects players, coaches, sponsors and spectators.
It is indeed a powerful position.
When I first started commentating, I had long thought that the referees should be accountable if they had this sort of influence. At that stage, of course, to criticise a referee was just not on. It wasn’t the norm.
The game has since moved on and become very professional, and now and again, referees are held accountable by the powers that be. In my opinion, however, nowhere near as much as they should be.
There are highly qualified referees on the world stage who continually influence the result of matches that are close. These referees seem to remain in their post because, generally speaking, they are good referees and they do everything they should do politically off the field.
What also concerns me is what they do on the field.
Often, their personality influences their actions.
Bryce Lawrence is an example. Bryce doesn’t really care about rugby. Bryce cares about himself.
I see that time and again when he referees a game. On some occasions, he is very good. Perhaps it’s his mood. But on other occasions, he dominates to the detriment of the game and the spectacle for crowds and sponsors alike.
Steve Walsh? Well, he’s on a power trip and he enjoys that power position.
This is not all bad, if it doesn’t influence the game.
In my opinion, he rides with the team with possession, therefore the team in defence are scrutinised more precisely than the team with the ball. This makes it extremely difficult for the defensive team to turn over possession or to stop the attack.
What inevitably happens is that a try is scored or a penalty is given.
On the other hand, we have referees like Craig Joubert, Mark Lawrence and Jonathan Kaplan.
These three referees are all South African, which is irrelevant in my mind. But it is interesting to see the development of South African referees over the years.
I can clearly remember the days when South African referees were exceptionally parochial. At one point I played a match for Natal against one of the smaller unions in the north.
Approaching the referee at the cocktail party afterwards, I introduced myself and I said, “I’ve got no axe to grind here because I am just a visitor for the season for Natal, but I have never played in a match where the referee favoured the home team as much as I have today.”
His answer, in a heavy Afrikaans accent, was, “Murray, I have to live in this town.”
Well, we have clearly come a long way since those days, and I am delighted to see the quality of today’s South African referees. Somebody is doing a great job back there.
I’d like to add the name Vinny Munro to the three South African referees.
The four of them clearly like the game of rugby and want the game of rugby to be the victor. This type of attitude, provided they are vigilant where necessary, is fantastic for our game and the future of the game.
I bow to these referees.
On the other hand, I have no respect for referees that are pedantic about the point of the law to the detriment of what is a great team game. Power to the referees who love the game, I say.