Token admissions of referee mistakes solve nothing

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Referee Bryce Lawrence gestures for a scrum. AP Photo/Ross Land

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    Last week, SANZAR game manager, Lyndon Bray, made the admission that South African referee Marius Jonker had erred in not stopping play for ‘that knock-on’ during the Week nine Bulls-Brumbies match in Pretoria.

    It was all about the timing. About this time last week, buried in among all the Week 10 previews and speculation over Will Genia’s future, was the confirmation of something the Super Rugby public already knew.

    In fact, Jonker had more than erred, Bray said, he’d made “a stone-cold mistake”.

    Now, don’t be worried if you had missed hearing or reading this news. The few outlets running the report – and The Roar wasn’t one of them – used the same wire story, and as far as I can tell, there was no formal SANZAR Media Release. Similarly, there’s still no mention of it on SANZAR’s Super Rugby site.

    With the safety of the news week just about done, and with Jonker already slated to officiate the Cheetahs-Highlanders game played last Sunday morning Australian time, Bray was surprisingly frank.

    “That particular error is just a stone-cold mistake,” Bray said in the reports.

    “He’s just got to put his hand up and say ‘we got it completely wrong’.

    “That was between the assistant referee and the referee and that cost seven points.”

    In the context of the Brumbies 36-34 loss, those seven points would’ve been mighty handy. The extra three points they’d have gained from winning that game would have further entrenched them in the top six – maybe even easing debate on whether conference leaders are worthy of a home final regardless of their actual points tally.

    Even further than that, those extra three points would’ve opened up a nice little gap over the chasing Waratahs and Reds in the Australian conference.

    Of course, this is nothing new for Australian teams. The Waratahs themselves were the victims in the first game of the year against the Reds. On that occasion, a runaway Tatafu Polota-Nau try was disallowed after Jaco Peyper and his assistant ruled that the pass to the Waratahs hooker from Tom Kingston was forward.

    The following week, Lyndon Bray was on the case, suggesting that due to the closeness of the call, the Waratahs possibly should’ve received the benefit of the doubt.

    “I’ve looked at it and it was very tight as to whether it was forward or not,” Bray said in reports at the time.

    “It was a tricky one. You’ve got to ignore the body position of the player which was ahead of the ball before he caught it.

    “It looked to me that if it was forward, it was only marginally so.”

    “It was an example of something not being clear and obvious enough to call it forward.”

    We may yet hear more about the Western Force being ‘robbed’, with Brian Habana fairly obviously losing control of the ball in scoring the Stormers first try on Saturday night in Perth. Habana’s try wasn’t sent upstairs for the TMO; Jaco Peyper – yes, him again – awarded the try on the spot.

    And it’s very nice of Lyndon Bray to come out and say all this. Very touchy-feely and fuzzy-warm.

    But it achieves nothing.

    Token admissions like these don’t right the wrong. The Bulls try still stands, as do the four points they gained for the win. The Waratahs don’t suddenly have one added to their ‘Tries scored’ column, and Polota-Nau is no closer to topping the ‘Tahs leading try-scorer list.

    So what is the point of coming out with these admissions? We know that referees are human beings, and therefore, are prone to making human mistakes.

    But are they really mistakes? Since we aren’t allowed to hear the thoughts of refs after a match, we’ll never know if these guys believe they erred or not.

    In fact, given the referee is the sole officiator of the laws of the game, and the only man with the responsibility of having to make a decision in an instant on something that happened right there and then, we should be giving them some benefit of the doubt, too.

    For all we know, Peyper may still believe the pass to Polota-Nau was forward, and likewise, Jonker may still think Morne Steyn didn’t knock the ball on. They’d be well entitled to believe they made the right call.

    And frankly, I’d prefer they did.

    I think rugby has it right in not allowing the TMO to rule on things happening outside the in-goal area. It means there never has to be any hesitation by the man with the whistle in-play, and likewise, no reliance on a television director to provide the right angle to see if a ball was knocked, or was passed forward.

    The Roar’s own Andrew Logan nailed it last night on ABC Grandstand: “Sport wasn’t meant to be perfect. There should always be some level of imperfection,” Loges told Peter Wilkins, on the topic of video adjudication.

    It keeps a reliance on the human element that referees bring to the game of rugby, and thus retains that possibility of mistakes being made. But I would much rather the refs make the odd mistake than have the game overrun by the use of video adjudication.

    Furthermore, the focus should be that these professional referees get the very vast majority of decisions right.

    Lyndon Bray’s comments don’t solve anything, and nor will they stop mistakes being made. Better he make no comment at all and just let the decision and the mystery of its accuracy stand as is.

    As a former top-level referee himself, Bray of all people should know that accepting the refs decision doesn’t only apply to the players.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (84)

    • May 3rd 2012 @ 2:12am
      Krash said | May 3rd 2012 @ 2:12am | ! Report

      Nice article Brett. Nicely rounded off.

      On the Hababna try though, at first glance and in real time it looked (to most people, I’d imagine) like a clear try and any ref would’ve awarded it. I’ll admit, though, that on the replay it looked pretty damn obvious that he’d lost it before the line. So much so that Habana himself looked like a boy acknowledging he’d gotten away with murder after he saw the replay on the big screen.

      • Columnist

        May 3rd 2012 @ 8:57am
        Brett McKay said | May 3rd 2012 @ 8:57am | ! Report

        HI guys, some good comments in already to start the discussion…

        Krash, you are quite right that on first glance in real time, Habana’s try looked quite garden-variety, and I’m sure scoring between the posts has helped him too. But given that the Touchies are almost always behind the play, you’d like to think that one of them at least might have seen the ball coming free (backwards) and that that might’ve been enough to wonder about the grounding.

        Anyway, on this one at least, I’m happy that we’ve not heard anything so far, the decision was made at the time, and that’s that..

        • Roar Pro

          May 3rd 2012 @ 10:32am
          sittingbison said | May 3rd 2012 @ 10:32am | ! Report

          Interesting observations krash and Brett about looking at it on the telly “in real time” and then on “replay”, because looking at it live from the stands at the game it looked like he dropped it before hitting the ground, the crowd erupted in disbelief when Peyper did not go to the TMO.

          The first time we saw it on the screen was very late in the game, they replayed it popping out then had a close up of Habana who was watching the screen and he certainly had a guilty grin.

          The only thing that should come out of this one is that perhaps a ref caught 40m behind the play could consult to make sure the ball is grounded.

          • May 4th 2012 @ 9:58am
            Blue Blood said | May 4th 2012 @ 9:58am | ! Report

            Im with you. I was also at the game and when the ball popped back and he was so obviously just at the line I was waiting for the TMO to make the call. I was floored when the ref finally got close and just awarded the try blind. But the ref missed clear 3 knock ons by the Stormers when they were at his and the Touchies feet, so by the end of the game I wasn’t surprised about the try call.

            I accept that calls will go against each team during a game. But I do think that a 20sec delay in the game once a try has possibly happened that the TMO earns his match fee. I sometimes think that it is a power/control thing of refs not to use it. We are all human and can easily make mistakes. Please just check. No one thinks less of you for taking the 20sec while the team sets up their possible conversion kick anyway.

        • May 3rd 2012 @ 6:45pm
          Steve.H said | May 3rd 2012 @ 6:45pm | ! Report

          Lyndon Bray admitted that the referees made mistakes with both the awarding of the final penalty in the Brumbies vs Cheetahs which lead to the Brumbies winning and with not giving the Bulls a penalty on halfway after Rene Ranger divided on Basson. Mistakes happen, its just hard for fans to accept when it effects their respective teams but there is no much that can be done.

    • May 3rd 2012 @ 3:35am
      King of the Gorgonites said | May 3rd 2012 @ 3:35am | ! Report

      At times it seems flat out bias. The bulls knock on was a treadful decision made by south Africans which favoured a south African team. Coincidence? I think not. Spiro has pointed this out since sanzar made this cost saving decision.

      • Columnist

        May 3rd 2012 @ 9:00am
        Brett McKay said | May 3rd 2012 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        KotGs, I do know what you’re saying here, but I want to make very clear that accusations or indeed perceptions of bias are not where I’m coming from today. Just want to make that clear.

        Gary R-S makes the point about neutral refs below, and it certainly does have an element of cost-saving about it that they are not being used across the board..

      • May 3rd 2012 @ 9:21pm
        steve.h said | May 3rd 2012 @ 9:21pm | ! Report

        The two decisions that went against South African teamsin favour of Australian and New Zealand opposition? Mistakes are apart of the game.

    • May 3rd 2012 @ 3:51am
      kingplaymaker said | May 3rd 2012 @ 3:51am | ! Report

      I agree that publicly bashing a referee does him no good and solves no problems. The poor referee has no right to reply: he can’t say that actually it wasn’t a ‘stone-cold mistake’ but just a ‘mistake’ of the human error kind that referees make.

      Referees need to keep their authority to be respected and the public underminings do them no favours. This also ties into the idiotic ‘apology’ culture in society where someone is demonised until they apologise, to the ‘public’, as if there is a meaningful ‘public’ waiting for and demanding an apology. The same goes for these dressing-downs. Now Jonker hashad an admission of guilty forced on him, everything is ok and the problems can be ignored.

      Maybe from the angle Jonker was looking, which was behind the ball being passed, it appeared to go backwards.

      One way to work out some issues is to allow the assistant referees greater powers of intervention-clearly they must see many mistakes but be unwilling to intefere. Surely an assistant saw that knock-on.

      • Columnist

        May 3rd 2012 @ 9:03am
        Brett McKay said | May 3rd 2012 @ 9:03am | ! Report

        KPM, I wasn’t aware that the ARs had had any powers stripped, but I do agree they should be encouraged to point out anything they’ve seen..

        • May 3rd 2012 @ 9:45am
          kingplaymaker said | May 3rd 2012 @ 9:45am | ! Report

          Brett sorry I didn’t express that very well. What I mean is that they presumably don’t point things out sometimes because it would override the referee and they have to assume he has it right (i.e. close calls for forward passes), when they have actually seen better than him and know better on these occasions. Presumably in general the referee is running the game and therefore making most of the calls, and therefore most are left to him, so it’s only with rare things that the assistants intervene.

          Even that’s not very clear. I mean that the main referee is given most of the calls and responsibility and the assistants can only step in for howlers, when in fact there are probably other cases when they can…

          • Columnist

            May 3rd 2012 @ 10:39am
            Brett McKay said | May 3rd 2012 @ 10:39am | ! Report

            I was still following, KPM. I think in the end, the on-field ref would still make THE decision, be that on the basis of the ARs advice or not, and that’s the way it should be. That said, ARs can certainly stake their case as strong as needed, in the case of howlers, as you mention..

            • May 3rd 2012 @ 11:10am
              kingplaymaker said | May 3rd 2012 @ 11:10am | ! Report

              That’s true Brett and I don’t think anything fundamentally needs changing. I wonder though in the Jonker case that he couldn’t see for whatever reason, maybe the angle, and that the assistants did see but didn’t want to overrule him. Of course in any case there are other factors to consider such as the flow of the game.

          • May 3rd 2012 @ 11:26am
            Warren said | May 3rd 2012 @ 11:26am | ! Report

            King, Brett,

            I attend all Force games and use those field ear things where I listen to all the match officials. I haven’t done this for a few years now and the change has been remarkable. There Is an almost incessant chatter amongst the officials and it almost seems that the game is being officiated by committee.

            In a recent match I even heard one of the touchies complimenting the ref on a particular decision “great decision there mate, you got it spot on, that’s the kind of thing we need” etc. it was quite nauseating.

            In my mind, refs need to get on with reffing, with the other officials being support crew only. How many times do we see touchies coming onto the field and pointing out something to the ref after he has made a decision and that will obviously have no impact on the game? Obvious matters need to be pointed out to him that have real impact of the game. Otherwise shut up and let him get on with it.

            • May 3rd 2012 @ 11:33am
              kingplaymaker said | May 3rd 2012 @ 11:33am | ! Report

              Warren I agree that certainly one man needs to make the decisions, but let’s just take the Jonker decision. Is it possible that three men thought it was not a knock-on, or that the main referee did and signalled play-on thereby making the decision and preventing the two assistants who saw the knock-on from intervening?

              • May 3rd 2012 @ 11:35am
                Warren said | May 3rd 2012 @ 11:35am | ! Report

                I agree with you. What I am saying is that the assistants need to become involved where an incident has a clear impact on the game. In your example above this is clearly the case.

              • May 3rd 2012 @ 11:47am
                kingplaymaker said | May 3rd 2012 @ 11:47am | ! Report

                Warren sure: oddly enough I here I don’t have a particular opinion on how things are or should be although I agree with Brett that robotic-perfection in a referee is something that shouldn’t be expected. I must say I am slightly mystified by how the process works between the referee and his assistants though.

    • May 3rd 2012 @ 7:50am
      Riccardo said | May 3rd 2012 @ 7:50am | ! Report

      So true Brett.

      No comment would be better. Think the human element that umpiring mistakes in cricket present. It’s a part of the game, even with the advent of technology.

      Although, as KOG has pointed out above, SANZAR’s fiscal decision to not have neutrel referees is a dumb one. It invites all sorts of perceptions and accusations, unnecessarily.

    • May 3rd 2012 @ 7:54am
      Lippy said | May 3rd 2012 @ 7:54am | ! Report

      God what do people want most weeks everyone is screamingfor the refs to be held accountable and then when.they are people say their authority is being undermined.
      Seriously…….

      • May 3rd 2012 @ 8:18am
        CraigB said | May 3rd 2012 @ 8:18am | ! Report

        You consider a story buried at the end of the news week accountable? How was he held to account? Did he get demoted or similar? I don’t think so…

        That said I agree with the sentiment of the article that the apology adds nothing. I would rather have nothing said and the ref dropped than an apology made and no other penalty applying.

        The best outcome would be to allow teams to talk about refereeing, let them, say where they think refs got it wrong. What’s wrong with that as long as you don’t attack the individual? Also let refs have a presser where they can explain their decisions on matters like this, transparency is the answer, not false apologies and silence.

        • May 3rd 2012 @ 9:30am
          Rugby Diehard said | May 3rd 2012 @ 9:30am | ! Report

          CraigB – if you want to see how that looks go and watch the NRL press conferences. It is much better to man up and take a bad call on the chin because next week it will go for you.

          I would add that I felt Jonkers gave one of the best reffing performances I have watched in recent times in the Rebels V Force game which just allowed the game to flow – consequently a game from which not a lot was expected delivereed a great spectacle.

          I suggest 2 things:
          1. The main point I agree with is to spend the extra per year and have neutral refs. As Spiro often points out to remove any accusations of bias which come from all 3 nations to varying degrees.

          2. I question why anyone would drop Jonkers for missing a knock-on (or any ref for a single mistake) and be happy to let Bryce Lawrence and others carry on ruining game after game with pedantic and inconsistent refereeing. I reckon refs should be judged by reviews on consistency (this would of course be contentious) but primarily by the time they allow the ball in play – which would be inarguable.

          • May 3rd 2012 @ 10:01am
            nickoldschool said | May 3rd 2012 @ 10:01am | ! Report

            I understand and somehow agree with the ‘neutral ref’ comments: we dont want a saffa or aussie ref for a WF v Bulls game.

            But to be fair, i think errors made are just what they are,human errors, and i think we have to believe in ref’s integrity and professionalism. The so called ‘accusations or perceptions’ often come from supporters (by definition very biased themselves) of the losing team. If its not nationality , they will find something else to undermine the ref.

            No ref is ‘absolutely neutral anyway: an aussie ref who supported the Tahs as a child may well want the Bulls to beat the Brumbies so that his team finishes top of the ladder, who knows?! Endless ways to extrapolate.

          • Columnist

            May 3rd 2012 @ 10:44am
            Brett McKay said | May 3rd 2012 @ 10:44am | ! Report

            Diehard, Nick, it’s worth noting that these guys are professionals themselves, and indeed got to where they did on their ability to make impartial, accurate decisions on an event, in consultation with their knowledge of the laws of the game.

            I do agree that there needs to be more consistency among refs though, it does feel like it’s a bit of grey area at times. The nationality or even venue of a ref shouldn’t matter; and nor should we ever see a ref’s name listed and have to feel, “no, not him!”

            • May 3rd 2012 @ 11:33am
              nickoldschool said | May 3rd 2012 @ 11:33am | ! Report

              How about ‘masked’ refs and digitally modified voice so we dont pick up the accent? here we go, thats a solution! 🙂

              More seriously, i think refs should be selected regardless of the nationality, why not randomly, and regularly judged/assessed by a commission, like every other professional in any business. No impunity nor racial vilification either: a fair assessment of one’s performance at work, regardless of his nationality.

            • May 3rd 2012 @ 11:35am
              MattyP said | May 3rd 2012 @ 11:35am | ! Report

              Bret – regarding consistency among refs, I would suggest that refs’ interpretations and judgments will always be coloured by the country where they grew up reffing – precisely because rugby, its culture and players’ and coaches’ approach to playing rugby in each of those countries is different. NZ, Australia, SA, France, Ireland, the Home Nations, Japan, US – all have differences in their approach to the game. This shows through in the players, and the refs who grow up reffing them. As we see more homoginisation of the game due to professionalism, the gap may narrow.

      • Columnist

        May 3rd 2012 @ 9:07am
        Brett McKay said | May 3rd 2012 @ 9:07am | ! Report

        Lippy, refs can still be held accountable without these token apologies though. Currently, SANZAR appoints its refs in two-week blocks, and then still have the ability – and at times have been forced (by injury) – to make changes in that second week. If a mistake was deemed serious enough for a ref to be dropped, it could still happen quite easily..

        • May 3rd 2012 @ 9:14am
          Justin said | May 3rd 2012 @ 9:14am | ! Report

          And should.

          The ref on this occasion should have stopped play and called a scrum. It was obvious to him that play had stopped, by both teams. You can hear it in the audio.

          So not only did he muck up the original decision had failed to think on his feet when the players had all stopped. And he knew why they had stopped as well. Again the audio supports this.

        • May 3rd 2012 @ 6:11pm
          Jarmen said | May 3rd 2012 @ 6:11pm | ! Report

          How is it any more token than anything else SANZAR and the IRB does Brett?
          In response to Craig it wasn’t hidden at the back of the news here in NZ it was very much a story on Stuffs website and I believe someone posted the link on one of the threads here at the Roar.
          maybe it was back page fodder in Australia but I certainly remember reading it and it wasn’t in the side columns either.

          I agree with what Lippy is saying, every other day on this thread people are whinging about the refs getting decisions wrong and that the should be held accountable and critiqued just like the players.

          Thats exactly what Mr Bray has done here he has gone public and admitting Jonker got it wrong, in itself a way of shaming his own official. But no thats still not good enough for some people.
          What do you want Brett do you want him to be sent to the judiciary and suspended for misconduct, bringing the game into disrepute?

          Their really is no pleasing some people, it seems some people will just complain for the sake of complaing.

    • May 3rd 2012 @ 8:11am
      AussieKiwi said | May 3rd 2012 @ 8:11am | ! Report

      There is no way of completely eliminating errors but more could be done to reduce them. Two on field referees (like league) and greater discretion for the refs to refer upstairs. Perhaps also one or two referrals per team per game. It will cause slightly more disruption to the game but would be worth it.

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