Clinton van der Berg.
The referees are stealing the headlines. Why were we ever surprised?

Every Rugby World Cup we approach with dread and caution, wondering whether a big match will be decided on the whim of a referee.

This year’s tournament in Japan has been pock-marked by inconsistencies and myopia.

The Boks had their turn with Jerome Garces, who true to form applied his Gallic flamboyance to the New Zealand-South Africa showdown. He was quickly turned into the villain of the piece.

It’s become fashionable to rip into referees, especially among South Africans, who need to blame someone. Never mind that Faf de Klerk played like my granny, or Duane Vermeulen missed the high ball that led to George Bridge’s try. Better to blame the ref.

Trouble is, every referee is on a hiding to nothing at the World Cup. This is partly because in this age of social media every fault, every minor error, is picked up, highlighted, scrutinised and shared, sometimes thousands of times over. What these clips and photographs inadvertently do is confirm the dense nature of rugby’s laws. Breakdowns are a shambles, offsides is de rigueur and every match has at least one obscene forward pass.

Getting to grips with the laws is a supreme test of resolve, but on top of this every team consciously flouts the regulations. Being a game of inches, every law is exploited, every chance taken. Just look at the All Blacks, the kings of the dark trade.

The remarkable thing is that referees pass their exams at all. The laws surrounding foul play have 30 clauses alone. Between them, the ruck and maul have 37 clauses. And we wonder why the breakdown, the most technical area of the game, is a mess. Referees need do more than be hawk-eyed. Because they have a duty to “manage” the game, they have also unwittingly become coaches, so instead of penalising an offending player, much of the time they bark at them to get onside or take their hands out.

It’s a maddening part of the sport - not one reflected anywhere in the law book - but without it we would have a game that never goes beyond two or three phases. What this all points to is a sport entangled in technical minutiae, too self-involved and complex to be fully understood and, worse, too complicated to appeal to casual fans.

This manifests in referees frequently getting things wrong, often because the law book is so open to interpretation, which leads to generalisations that refer to “southern hemisphere” and “northern hemisphere” refereeing. As if we were talking about two different games.

The surprising thing was that World Rugby, the arbiters of the game, came out with a statement acknowledging that the performances of match officials “were not consistently of the standards set by World Rugby and themselves”.

World Rugby isn’t in the habit of knocking its officials; the alternative would be to let the bumbling continue. Every World Cup represents a watershed of sorts for the game. Events in Japan have demonstrated that refereeing standards must improve, there must be less scope for interpretation and there must be a sincere attempt to cut out the muddle that pollutes almost every breakdown.

For now, referees might not deserve our love, but they deserve our sympathy.

@ClintonV

Sunday Tribune