Time for referees to front up?
September 24, 2013
Referees Martin Fox and Romain Poite have been at the centre of two high-profile mistakes in recent weeks © Getty Images
Two high-profile and enthralling games. Two referees guilty of making glaring errors. But just one apology. Do the victims, fans and even the TV viewers deserve another?
Last week the 'Clash of the Titans' between New Zealand and South Africa raised the bar in terms of intensity and physicality to heights rarely seen only for referee Romain Poite, his assistants and the Television Match Official to conspire to steal the show. The incorrect sin-binning of Springboks hooker Bismarck du Plessis proved the pivotal moment in the game with his subsequent red card a key factor in an All Blacks victory that will go a long way to deciding the Rugby Championship title.
Social media was soon awash with criticism of Poite whose performance was subjected to an 'initial review' by the International Rugby Board that drew the same conclusion that everyone else had come to just moments after Du Plessis was dismissed for a bone-crunching but perfectly legal tackle on New Zealand's Dan Carter - Poite had got it badly wrong.
The IRB moved swiftly to quell the storm by offering a public apology for the "human error" that had blighted the game with their statement adding that all the officials "fully recognise and accept that they made a mistake."
The timing of the IRB statement, barely a day after the game, may well have been down to chief executive Brett Gosper, an ex-advertising executive who is probably more aware than most of the sport's need to preserve the appeal of its most valuable products - such as a battle between the world's best two sides.
It may have also been hastened by the amount of venom aimed at Poite but it also left the governing body open to further criticism with Bath coach Gary Gold was one of those to ask whether they were now going to issue an apology for every error?
As surprising as their action may have been, it was not the first time the IRB had issued an apology for the performance of their referees. Remember Wales' Mike Phillips darting down the touchline for a try against Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in 2011 with the 'wrong' ball following a quick lineout? That shocker from referee Jonathan Kaplan and his team did not trigger a prompt and public apology but one was relayed to Ireland by the then referees boss Paddy O'Brien.
Just as the furore surrounding Poite's error was dying down, another referee was thrust into the spotlight. A thrilling roller-coaster of a Premiership game between Gloucester and Northampton was building to a fitting finale in front of a bumper crowd at Kingsholm but it was referee Martin Fox and not the players who made the most telling contribution.
His failure to spot Gloucester drifting off-side as they chased the kick-off and the game in the closing moments of the contest gave the hosts a vital foothold. Fox was given a chance to redeem himself moments later but instead of penalising Gloucester No.8 Ben Morgan for kicking the ball back into the scrum, he chose to punish Northampton for standing up.
The Rugby Football Union have so far refused to follow the lead of the IRB and admit to the error but that has not stopped others condemning the official - and they are not all confined to Twitter. BT Sport analyst Austin Healey labelled the performance of Fox as "a disgrace" while his colleague Lawrence Dallaglio suggested the under-fire ref should be stood down for his glaring error - but will not be because there are not enough suitably experienced referees to fill the void.
Saints boss Jim Mallinder kept the lid on his frustration after the game but will surely expect some sympathy from the RFU in the coming days although the man who would perhaps make that kind of call - the head of referees Ed Morrison - left the organisation on the eve of the new season. But even that would not satisfy those fans who believe their team was robbed of a win.
Although it would not make an error easier to stomach, an admission of guilt certainly would take the sting out of such a situation. Coaches and fans both accept that officials, just like players, will make mistakes but what they will not tolerate is silence that suggests their actions are acceptable.
Speaking recently on the subject, SANZAR Game Manager Lyndon Bray revealed elite referees are in regular dialogue with coaches: "What we are really trying to work towards by having such open communication is transparency," he said. "That is our key objective, the more up front we are with the coaches, the more accepting they are of what we are trying to achieve. As a consequence, they are more forgiving of mistakes if the intention is correct, it helps as we can be honest and direct."
But don't fans - especially those supporters who have paid to watch the game either at the turnstile or with their TV remote, deserve the same? Perhaps the answer is to have referees front up to the cameras following a game to share their views and their thoughts on the key decisions? The best referees would have nothing to fear and broadcasters such as BT Sport would welcome the additional angle to their coverage of the game - it would certainly have more appeal than 'kicking-tee cam'.
Of course it would be better if the contentious decisions could be eliminated altogether. The referee must remain the sole arbiter of fact but could the remit of the Television Match Official be extended yet further to allow them to offer clarification on any element of the game? Surely when afforded the wealth of angles offered by TV these days, there is no excuse for missing errors? The events in Auckland illustrate that TMO input comes with no guarantee - a fact underlined by the intervention of Shaun Veldsman during a Currie Cup game last weekend - even those given time and space to review incidents can get it wrong.
But what is the alternative? The potential of a World Cup Final being decided by an error that everyone can see apart from the referee?
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.