Cape Times – Jonathan Kaplan will become the first referee to handle 100 Super Rugby games tomorrow when he runs out on to Free State Stadium for the Cheetahs-Sharks derby.
The 46-year-old holds several refereeing records, including most Test matches (68), most Super Rugby and Currie Cup matches, and he has done over 1 000 senior-level matches in a career spanning 30 years. But he has announced that he will retire at the end of 2013. We caught up with him this week.
Who is Jonathan Kaplan and how would you describe yourself?
I’m a South African, born in Durban. I grew up with quite strong traditional Jewish roots, quite conservative, in a way. And on a diet of sport, really. That was my attraction to the traditional sports – cricket, rugby, soccer, all ball sports.
Many people regard you as the best referee South Africa has ever produced. Why are you hanging up your whistle?
First of all, I don’t think there is such a thing as the best because you may think Muhammad Ali is the greatest, and I may think Marvin Hagler is the greatest. Or Joe Louis. It doesn’t actually matter, because it is era-specific, things change. As far as the public support (goes), that is extremely gratifying for me, as I have always reffed for the players, first and foremost. My service was with the laws in mind, but always to make sure that the players had a good day – to try my best in that respect.
What do you think of the new scrum cadence? Why do some referees take an eternity between calls? Is there a specific time?
Rugby needs transformation, and by and large, I think, by and large, the IRB does a very good job in respect of trying to transform the game in a direction where it’s a better product for the public. I always think you’ve got to bear in mind the balance – you can’t just have razzle-dazzle. You need a little bit of an arm wrestle and a little bit of grit as well.
There are a lot of scrum doctors that I’ve spoken to who are in favour of this new three-sequence call. One of the reasons is that they felt that the other one forced players to stay in that braced position for too long, and there was too much uncertainty.
I wouldn’t like to see rugby becoming Flash Harry – just skip passes and sidestepping and things. People like a little bit of mongrel, they like a bit of arm wrestle, grit. I’m not saying a prop shouldn’t have a sidestep, but it should be a game for all shapes and sizes.
Which players and coaches have been a pleasure to deal with as a referee?
In no particular order, I quite enjoyed the likes of a Nick Mallett, Wayne Smith, Todd Blackadder (as captain and coach), Harry Viljoen, Clive Woodward, Frank Hadden and Eddie O’Sullivan from Ireland, I had a tremendous rapport with Eddie. Declan Kidney too, because I found him to be an absolute gentleman. I generally get on well with most of them, and I have definitely left out a few names.
Players who manage to keep the balance of perspective impress me: Blackadder, huge respect for him. George Smith, Martin Johnson, massive presence on the field and a good guy for me when I was reffing. Victor Matfield, and Smit obviously, because we were involved for a long time together. Also a guy like Dewald Potgieter, on a lesser scale.
Matfield, when he lost the Currie Cup final – he won a lot with me, and then lost a few as well – he was the first guy to come and say ‘You had a great game, thanks’.
That kind of perspective means a lot to me, because what it shows is that it’s about more than just rugby. I would like to mention Keven Mealamu as well, despite the hurly-burly, what an absolute pleasure to referee, what an absolute gentleman. Wikus van Heerden, Dick Muir, Nathan Sharpe ... the list is endless.
And the most difficult?
When I started out, the likes of Kobus Wiese and Helgard Muller were quite difficult for me. I didn’t mind that, as I understood the landscape – they were just doing what they could to ensure that their team won. More recently, I had big respect for the likes of Martin Johnson, Brian O’Driscoll, George Gregan, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall. Even though they could be quite difficult, they were very switched on in terms of what was happening on the field, and they would push the envelope. All competitive winners!
Was there an incident that you would like to forget about on the field? What’s the toughest call you’ve had to make on a field?
The one that I regret the most in my international career was the Ireland-Wales game in 2011 where I made a poor non-decision, and it resulted in a try. The game ended up being close, so there were obviously questions asked about it. I’ve got no excuses, it was just a poor call. I realised that an error had been made, and I really had to concentrate to ensure that the rest of the fixture was fairly refereed. I’m a human being, and I’ve tried my best, but I do make mistakes.
What’s your favourite Test out of the 68?
I often talk about the 2000 New Zealand-Australia Test in Wellington where John Eales kicked the winning penalty deep into injury time. It was special because I was a relative newcomer in Test refereeing. That was a game between the two top powers at the time, and it carried a lot of status – it was for Bledisloe Cup, Tri-Nations and number-one team in the world.
I had to make a decision, which wasn’t a difficult one, but it came at a difficult time in the game to make a decision that would have a direct bearing on the outcome. It was a really high-quality Test match!
You are a serious marathon runner?
I’ve done 50 marathons, including five Comrades and five Oceans. But I am really a bit of a plodder. I was a pretty average sportsman at school! I played chess at school, and my school won the league four times in a row. When I was younger, I enjoyed a good game of tennis, but I wasn’t really that good at anything.
What do you do for fun, away from rugby?
I collect bonsais; I’ve got 40 so far. They can be quite difficult to maintain when I am overseas, because bonsais need a lot of attention.
I also love my dogs – I’ve got two beautiful bulldogs called Lola and Dexter.
Will there be a few tears for your 100th Super Rugby game on Saturday? Or are you not that kind of guy?
I am that kind of guy! I try to keep my emotions in control, because my work on the field is more clinical. But then again, it is important to maintain an emotional empathy with the game in order to fulfil my philosophy and my vision of how the game should be refereed.
I will be mindful of the milestone on Saturday as I have worked really hard to get here, and to get into shape for the season. I don’t think people realise it, but I am the oldest referee in Super Rugby by five years. I am very proud. There can only be one person who gets there first.
What is also true, though, is that all records and milestones get broken – they are not there for you, they are there for the game.
This game will always carry a special place in my heart, but equally important is the delivery of performance. I would like to, not just in this game, but the whole season, deliver a performance where I can look back and be proud of my last season. That’s the most important.
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