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Are Super Rugby refs biased?

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Roar Pro
31st May, 2019
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This month, a RugbyPass article exposed the state of officiating by South African referees.

The piece pointed out that the “objectivity of South African referees when reffing South African teams at home against non-South African opponents has been called into questions by fans and media alike.”

The consistency issue has recently reared its ugly head again due to the officiating of the Stormers vs Crusaders match at Newlands in Cape Town.

Both officials have been stood down this weekend. TMO duties will now fall to Christie du Preez, who “has been used sparingly since the Stormers’ victory over the Lions in Round 2 when he was roundly criticised for not flagging an obvious infringement from the hosts,” according to reports.

In Round 5, the penalty count was 20-1 in favor of the Lions and the Rebels were given two yellow cards. In Round 13, the penalty count was 10-2 to the Lions. In Round 14, Rasta Rasivhenge’s penalty count was 12-3 in favour of the Lions.

There is little doubt that the Lions have been benefitting from Egon Seconds and Rasta Rasivhenge, and unfortunately the current perception is that “certain South African referees are incapable of officiating teams from their own country against offshore sides in a neutral manner”. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has also weighed in on the debate.

While I am concerned over the lack of consistency, I haven’t attributed it to national bias, rather considering it a byproduct of a lack of training or the fact that people make mistakes and being a referee is not an easy job.

However, according to the RugbyPass article, “Non-South African teams are getting penalised 33.3% more with a South African ref, while the home teams are getting penalised 28.8% less, resulting in a significant swing advantage in the penalty count to the South African sides”.

These statistics are alarming and do raise questions as to whether this is a uniquely South African problem.

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However, a satisfactory conclusion cannot be determined due to the lack of statistics from the other Super Rugby nations, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

So I decided to analyse each conference and collate the total amount of penalties from Round 1 to Round 14 for and against each team, being careful not to double up on penalties when two teams from the same conference played.

I then compared the games that had home refs with those that had neutral refs for each game played regardless of location.

And finally I looked at the home games comparing the results of home refs with neutral refs for local derbies as opposed to games that included an international team.

The penalty and yellow/red card numbers were sourced from the All Blacks App. For two games I could only confirm the referee and not the ARs or TMO – these games are marked with an asterisk. In both of these cases, I took the names from the weekly referee appointment news on the Super Rugby website.

The most pertinent findings are to be found in the ‘international opposition’ section for each country.

Here are my findings.

Rob Simmons yellow card

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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Argentina
While the Jaguares are in the African Conference, I decided to look at each country separately.

Interestingly, the Jaguares have never been officiated by an Argentinian ref. I find this rather curious as Federico Anselmi has officiated five games in the Australian conference. In addition, he has been an AR 11 times.

Pablo Deluca and Damian Schneider have also been AR once. This seems contrary to World Rugby’s ambition of developing of the sport globally.

The Jaguares get penalised a lot. In the seven games with a Kiwi ref officiating, the penalty count is whopping 69-55 against the Jaguares. With SA refs, the penalty count is 51-36 (five games). The penalty count in the remaining game was 9-10 (Australian ref).

Australia
These statistics are compiled for the four Australian teams in the Australian Conference. The only time the Sunwolves – the fifth Australian Conference franchise – have been included in these statistics is when they were playing the Australian teams.

One of the most noticeable differences with the Australian Conference is the amount of neutral refs being used. I’m not sure if this is because of a lack of suitable local candidates, but if this is the case, I sincerely hope it’s being rectified.

The vast majority of Australian derby matches are being officiated by a neutral ref, which isn’t the case with the other conferences. But there needs to be some consistency with this.

On five occasions, home games were officiated by a SA referee – three local derbies and two against SA opposition. NZ referees were used for five local derbies.

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It seems strange that foreign refs would be used to officiate a game against one of their own teams!.

Surely an easy answer would’ve been to have the Kiwi refs officiate the games against SA teams, leaving the SA refs to officiate more derbies.

All games
There has been a total of 355 penalties conceded by the four Australian franchises, and 347 penalties conceded by the opposition in all games to date.

In the 11 games with an Australian referee, there were 100 penalties conceded and three yellow and two red cards given to the Australian home team, and 125 penalties conceded and 11 yellow and one red card given to the opposition.

When the ref was neutral (28 games), there were 255 penalties conceded and ten yellow cards given to Australian home team and 222 penalties conceded and eight yellow cards given to the opposition.

The most horrifying statistic here is the amount of cards being issued. These statistics include all the games played by all the Australian teams.

Local derbies
For the two local derbies played in Australia officiated by Australian refs, the home side conceded 18 penalties, while the visiting Australian team conceded 26 penalties, and received three yellow cards.

In the 15 games officiated by a neutral ref, the home team conceded 128 penalties and received four yellow cards, while the visitors were penalised 124 times and four yellow cards were given.

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There is a home advantage when a fellow Australian is officiating.

International opposition
In the eight matches played in Australia involving foreign teams and an Australia ref, 78 penalties were conceded, three yellow and two red cards were given to the home team, while the foreign teams were penalised 88 times and received eight yellow and one red card.

For the eight matches with a neutral ref, the home team conceded 62 penalties and received two yellow cards, while the foreign team were penalised 64 times and received one yellow card. Visiting teams are being penalised more but the findings are still fairly consistent.

Japan
As with the Jaguares, the Sunwolves have never been officiated by a Japanese ref. However, while Shuhei Kubo has been an AR nine times, Aki Aso twice and Tawasaki Kawahara once, a Japanese official hasn’t been the referee of a match.

The Sunwolves definitely get penalised a lot, having conceded 16 penalties in Round 1 (Nic Berry) and 17 in Round 12 (Angus Gardner).

With an Australian ref officiating, the penalty count is whopping 83-62 against the Sunwolves in seven games. With Kiwi refs the penalty count is 30-17 (three games). The penalty count in the remaining two games was 9-8 (SA ref) and 14-4 (Argentinian ref).

New Zealand
The NZ Conference consists of five NZ teams, hence the difference in the number of home matches.

All games
There has been a total of 422 penalties conceded by the five NZ franchises, and 421 penalties conceded by the opposition in all games to date.

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In the 25 games with a NZ referee, there were 227 penalties conceded and five yellow and one red card given to the NZ home teams, and 242 penalties conceded and ten yellow and one red card given to the opposition.

When the ref was neutral (22 games), there were 195 penalties conceded and five yellow cards given to NZ home team and 179 penalties conceded and six yellow cards given to the opposition.

Local derbies
For the 14 local derbies played in NZ officiated by Kiwi refs, the home side conceded 135 penalties and received three yellow cards, while the visiting Kiwi team conceded 131 penalties and received five yellow and one red card.

In the three games officiated by a neutral ref, the home team conceded 24 penalties, while the visitors had 22 penalties and one yellow card given.

There is consistency with the number of penalties been issued with negligible home advantage being afforded.

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International opposition
In the nine matches played in NZ involving foreign teams and a Kiwi ref, 82 penalties were conceded, two yellow and one red card was given to the home team, while the foreign teams were penalised 86 times and received four yellow cards.

For the six matches with a neutral ref, the home team conceded 46 penalties and received two yellow cards, while the foreign team were penalised 48 times and received two yellow cards. Once again there is consistency with the number of penalties been issued with little home advantage being afforded.

South Africa
These statistics are compiled for the four SA teams in the African Conference. The only time the Jaguares were included in this research were when they were playing SA teams.

All games
There has been a total of 331 penalties conceded by the four South African franchises, and 406 penalties conceded by the opposition in all games to date.

In the 16 games with a South African referee, there were 116 penalties conceded and six yellow cards given to the home SA team, and 169 penalties conceded and seven yellow cards given to the opposition.

When the ref was neutral (24 games), there were 215 penalties conceded and seven yellow and one red card given to home SA team, and 237 penalties conceded, six yellow and three red cards given to the opposition.

Local derbies
For the six local derbies played in SA officiated by SA refs, the home side conceded 60 penalties, and received three yellow and one red card, while the visiting SA team conceded 53 penalties, and received two yellow and one red card.

In the four games where there was a neutral ref, the home team conceded 38 penalties and two yellow cards, while the visitors were penalised 37 times and one yellow card was given.

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SA refs issued seven more penalties to the home side, while the neutral refs were very consistent, a difference of one penalty.

International opposition
In the nine matches played in SA involving foreign teams and a SA ref, 47 penalties were conceded and one yellow card was given to the home team, while the foreign teams were penalised 97 times and received three yellow cards.

For the six matches with a neutral ref, the home team conceded 57 penalties and received three yellow cards, while the foreign team were penalised 65 times and received two yellow cards.

SA refs penalised the visiting international teams more than twice as much as the local teams, while there was only a difference of eight penalties between the two from the neutral refs. This shows a clear home advantage being given.

Statistics are all well and good, and people will make their own conclusions with this information.

The difference in the home refereeing of local derbies can probably be explained by way of provincialism, however, it would require further analysis to be conclusive.

The international opposition sections are of particular interest in the wake of the statistics shared by RugbyPass.

And those statistics show that SA teams have more of an advantage when a SA ref is officiating than teams in Australia or NZ do when there’s a home ref.

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Interestingly, only the Sunwolves and Jaguares are penalised more against international sides.