I may be cynical with the following views but this has been my rugby experience from player to referee over a 30-year career.
Coaches spend their life devoted to finding and perfecting the impurities of the game to gain an advantage in the continual contest for the ball in what we call the game of rugby.
Referees as the custodians of the laws of the game are in continual pursuit of the perfect game where all players comply with the laws and the referee has a penalty count of 0 for both halves.
Both the referee and the coach are in pursuit of utopia. This can never be achieved.
Rugby is a game of infractions, breaking rules, and improvising as a team strives to achieve a goal. The nature of this 80-minute endeavor results in approximately 100 tackle/rucks, 20 lineouts, 10 scrums, and 18 penalties at Test level on a perfect day. Even games usually mean even numbers of meanderings across the line of law. Terrific games are where two different styles of play (infractions) counteract each other to give a very close result.
The challenge for the referee is to find the melody in this unstructured song. Should they employ a totally analytical approach and identify every error in law, the game will lose its sort after flow and the game becomes a total bore and all be lost to lawn bowls or a similar more exciting sport than an 80-penalty game of rugby.
World Rugby has always and continually challenged with this and uses the concept of advantage, to allow a team to continue on after an infringement, to play as they wish, and that the penalty will be retired once time, tactical or positional advantage has been accrued in the “view of the referee” in real-time during the game. Referees think about this a lot. By considering the type of advantage, field position, and competition (physical) between the teams. All done with a heart rate in the 120s plus fighting dehydration and asphyxiation.
The other concept they use is a material effect. Where penalty infringements with little, if any impact on the game is largely ignored so play can continue. After the first 20 games of refereeing rugby, this becomes the challenge of a lifetime for all referees, and it will never leave them until they hang their boots up. In short, this is difficult to perceive in real-time and get correct. Everybody will assess it after the fact with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.
Nic Berry’s efforts in the South Africa-British & Irish Lions First Test were pretty good in almost all areas of the game given the impossibility of the task. Test Matches are by definition a tough test for everybody otherwise they would be known as “Easy Matches!”
When two highly skilled teams battle at the edges of adjudication of the laws of the game you should expect a less than perfect result. Great players manage the seemingly impossible in the “in-close” parts of the game to gain that slightest advantage which may result in points on the board in a phase or threes time. The only solution is to outplay the other team within the referee’s acceptable levels of the game.
To be objective, this Lions team has a keenness to test the envelope of the referee’s threshold of where the penalty is awarded, and they adjusted accordingly. The Boks do this well enough, but on the night, they were outperformed, and to be fair they needed to change their game plan to win for which they did not.
However, Rassie Erasmus has made some valid points for which I glossed over as a spectator of reasonable rugby knowledge that is worthy of a circle the wagons in the referee world.
The high tackle framework was not adhered to in the game the TMO needed to call the “Check-Check” call to advise Berry of the high tackles. Rassie, identified the two that impacted his team which needed to have been applied and two yellow cards awarded as a minimum but Red Cards have been awarded for less. In fact, World Rugby framework clearly shows a similar action and declares it red as a no-malicious but high dangerous lifting tackle. This is the key work of the TMO and Berry was let down over this.
If he had issued a red, then the whinge would still come but be slightly different. We all know he can never win at his chosen game of refereeing.
Possibly the other more disturbing was the on-field style of the way SA captain and the Lions captain interacted with the team of three. Assistant referees have no place in dealing with questions of adjudication of the on-field with the captains. It is a very bad look to have ushered SA captain away while still allowing the Lions to remain. This displays as unconscious bias and needs to be corrected as fans will react negatively at the sight of this regardless of the actual intent.
In the wash-up, the team of three’s performance was adequate but with areas to work on. I feel this behind doors stuff is poor for the game as much as Rassie’s rant. I only hope we can be more open with referees and coaches having their pregame meetings televised to allow for the mysteries of the beautiful game to be dispensed with.
Even with a performance report as a numerical scale format to allow the conjecture to settle and be averaged out over multiple Tests and multiple referees.
The rugby commentator and professional journalist also carry a special responsibility to ensure that they manage the hysteria with fact.