Shouting orders: Referee Bryce Lawrence in action during the World Cup quarter-final between SA and Australia at Wellington Regional Stadium last year. Former Bok coach Peter de Villiers speaks of his concerns about referees in his new book. Picture: Duif du Toit / Gallo Images

There was another important matter I had to consider in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup – referees. Even way back in January, the issue of referees was constantly on my mind, as it was threatening to become one of the biggest obstacles in our quest to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. Of course, back in those summer months, in the heat of Paarl, I wasn’t aware of just how accurate my concern would prove to be.

It’s quite ridiculous how much time coaches spend assessing referees, but it’s a reality of the modern game. As a coach, you have to be familiar with the style and quirks of all the international referees, or you risk neglecting a factor that could make the difference between winning and losing.

With the help of former referee Neville Heilbron, who attended most of the meetings I held with match officials, I conducted a thorough study of all the international referees. Then, when the referees for our World Cup games were announced, I also consulted with another former referee, Tappe Henning, who was involved with the IRB.

South African referees are the best in the world by some distance, but that doesn’t help the Springboks, as the local referees don’t officiate in our games. So we get all the “less-talented” refs. And what makes matters worse, I am sorry to say, is that some of our own officials are far too keen to stay in favour with their overseas counterparts and the IRB. In my first days as Bok coach, André Watson was (SA Rugby Football Union) Saru’s official in charge of referees, but rumour had it that he was angling for a job with the IRB.

He seemed to be treading lightly around IRB referee chief Paddy O’Brien, but it didn’t help much, as Lyndon Bray got the job in the end.

I remember talking to our local citing chief, Freek Burger, and saying that his Australian and New Zealand counterparts were always trying to find reasons why their players were not guilty of infringements rather than looking for reasons why they were guilty. Freek said my perception was correct, but then pointed out that the people he worked for (Sanzar and the IRB) lived in New Zealand.

This summed up our problem – while South African referees may be the best (a point proven yet again when Craig Joubert officiated in the final of the 2011 World Cup), all the decision-making power is situated overseas.

I really do believe that the South African officials are too keen to please in order to stay in the good books of the “right” people. Television match officials have even admitted that, when they have to make a 50/50 call, they rule against South Africa, as they want to officiate at the World Cup. In other words, some officials would let their country lose a match so that they can go to the World Cup. I just can’t understand that kind of mindset – it makes no damn sense to me at all.

So I think refereeing standards have deteriorated over the past few years. Technology hasn’t helped, either. When you consider the number of forward passes and other errors that have gone unnoticed by referees, all technology has done is to promote a laxness that didn’t exist before.

A few years back hardly anyone cared about who was officiating in a match, but with referees now seemingly more concerned about their own career prospects than their impartiality, it has become a massive issue.

Referee assessors have the same impact on rugby as the teaching inspectors I came across in my teaching career had on the teachers. In my view, the person who should be ascertaining whether the teacher is doing a good job is the school principal. The inspector should help and guide the teachers to improve their performances. But unfortunately in my day, the “best” teaching inspectors were those who came up with the most negative reports, and referee assessors are much the same.

So, given the situation, we met with the referees and tried to find out how they refereed certain aspects of the game. I thought these were constructive meetings that would help them as much as they would help us, as we would understand and respect one another’s viewpoint better.

Unfortunately, I soon found out that some of the referees were not always honest – as they would say one thing to us and something completely different to someone else. For instance, we had a meeting with Bryce Lawrence before the Lions series, which he described as the best meeting ever. But then Paddy O’Brien informed me later that Bryce had told him the exact opposite.

I am honest and like to speak my mind, and perhaps this came back to bite me with the referees. I hope this isn’t true – should a person be penalised for being honest?

Nevertheless, I had my moments with various referees down the years, and we often engaged in heated debate.

I had my first meeting with Paddy O’Brien in Johannesburg during my first year in charge, and my management team was also present. Paddy was a visitor to our country, yet when he walked into the room, his condescending attitude was immediately apparent.

“Peter, should I start this meeting?” he asked.

“No, Paddy, I will start it,” I said. “You are in my country now.”

I then said something I don’t think he was happy about.

“You know, Paddy, ever since (my schooldays) it has been a dream of mine to meet God. I now feel like that dream has (come true). I feel God is finally in the same room as me.”

Phew, so that was the way the meeting started. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best approach. I informed Paddy that I would like to meet with the referees for a discussion. He snapped back that I would never meet the referees. So I ended the meeting there and then. I asked him who gave him the right to come to my country and dictate terms, and I said he should go and drink some beer with the other officials, as that seemed to be his main purpose for visiting South Africa. I added that he had become too self-important.

“We are nothing, you and I,” I said. “The game has made us who we are.” I got ready to leave, but then O’Brien suddenly changed his attitude and said, “No, no, come on, Peter, let’s sit down and talk.”

In the end I sat down and, with O’Brien now more amiable, I asked him why it had been necessary to arrive with such a haughty attitude. Why had he been so determined to show that he was in control?

Fortunately, the meeting concluded on a more positive note.

But then we had the Bryce Lawrence meeting, and Bryce told Gary Gold that it had been constructive but then complained about it to Paddy. So I took Paddy on in a follow-up meeting.

“Paddy,” I said, “this is exactly why I can’t work with your referees – they are always too ready to bend the truth when it suits them.”

Of course he didn’t like that, nor did he like it that I had had Neville Heilbron with me at the referees’ meeting. But Neville had compiled all the data we required for the meeting, and I wanted him to present it to them first-hand and to discuss the finer points.

Perhaps the referees felt I was challenging their competency. I told Paddy that I thought the referees didn’t want to take responsibility for their own decisions any more. Technology had made their jobs easier and, as a result, they were neglecting their fitness levels and were not as sharp on the field as they should be.

The deeper involvement of the touch judges, who have now become assistant referees, has not helped keep the referees on their toes either. Far from it. The referees have started to hide behind their assistants. Do shared responsibilities make the game better when referees aren’t always man enough to take responsibility and pass the buck too easily?

Referees don’t seem to understand the overriding principle of good refereeing: that the less they are noticed on the field, the better they are doing their job. And the game will be better off, too. A lot of them may pay lip service to that principle, but too many of them are way too self-important. I said as much to Irish referee Alain Rolland, and we had a big fight about it.

He said he didn’t need rugby, that he had achieved a lot outside of the game. I disagreed, saying that he was recognised on the streets of Ireland only because of his involvement with rugby.

I didn’t fight with referees because of the mistakes they made, but because they thought they were above the law. It’s a weird situation when the presidents of countries can be criticised in the media but referees can’t. If you do, you are blamed for bringing the game into disrepute. Yet it seems to me that they are the very people who are undermining the standing of the sport. Coaches and players can lose their jobs, but it appears as if referees are a protected species.

Also, I’m not always sure who benefits from some of the law changes. If you ask the players what they want, they will tell you that they want serious rucking; vigorous rucking has always been part of the game. I think it’s the referees who can’t handle it.

l This is an extract from Politically Incorrect by Peter de Villiers with Gavin Rich. Published by Zebra Press, it is on sale at all good bookstores at a recommended retail price of R220. Gavin Rich has been covering SA rugby for 21 years and won the Sasol Springbok Rugby Writer of the Year award in 2010.