Kaplan ready for big challenge
August 4, 2000

A few months ago, Jonathan Kaplan was blowing a whistle in front of 25 000 frantic Italians as Italy won their very first Six Nations match against Scotland at the Stadium Flaminio in Rome.

A few months before that, he was a touch judge at the last Athletic Park Test, between the All Blacks and France.

In both those games, history was being made. On Saturday in Wellington, he will be involved in more. Kaplan has been selected to officiate the first game at the Westpac Trust Stadium, home of the Hurricanes, between the All Blacks and Wallabies. The match will determine who wins the Bledisloe Cup, while it could also reveal the winner of the Vodacom Tri-Nations.

The 33-year-old referee, however, is confident in his own abilities and admits he is looking forward to the challenge. "I haven't seen the stadium yet, but I've seen it on television and Paddy (O'Brien) tells me it's quite a buzz when you get on the field. If the crowd thinks you've made the wrong decision, they let you know about it for about four minutes.

"I like to satisfy the immediate customers and those are the players on the field - that's my first priority. They must have confidence in my ability and only then they will express themselves. If they don't have that confidence, the game becomes a little bit more stodgy and penalty-ridden.

"I've waited 17 years for this kind of opportunity and I'm not about to go on the field a bundle of nerves. I'm confident I can facilitate a decent game. We have the two best teams in the world and if they are prepared to play ball - and I can't see it happening any other way - I'll facilitate accordingly."

Kaplan is confident Saturday's clash could be a repeat of the Vodacom Tri-Nations opener, which New Zealand won 39-35 in injury time. "The opener might well have been a one-off, but it's not going to be a one-off for ever. This next game could be the sequel, or we may have to wait two years, or five years, or even 10. We just don't know when that next game will come along.

"Every game is unique in its own character and has to take its own form, but there's no real reason why this game should not be that next one. What I can say is that there will be flow in the game."

He says the game should make for another great spectacle as the world's best attacking unit (New Zealand) comes up against the best defensive team (Australia). "That's the way I see the game. However, I'm not saying Australia can't attack. I think their halfbacks are sensational, But New Zealand have more weapons. It will be an interesting match."

Kaplan has been refereeing for 17 years, starting in his last year at school. He played until his university days, but had to stop playing because of the clash between it and refereeing. He jokes that was it not for his mother, he would probably never have become a professional referee. "When I was at school, I had my nose smashed a couple of times - and I have a paranoid mother who pushed me in the direction of refereeing. We're a fanatical rugby family and I wanted to stay involved even though I wasn't getting anywhere in rugby."

Saturday's match will be his seventh in charge, with the first one way back in 1996 between Namibia and Zimbabwe in Harare. He built up further experience with five more Tests and a bundle of Super 12 and Currie Cup games before the Six Nations opener in Rome.

"It was a fantastic experience - the occasion was very special. The Italians were hugely emotional. I think Diego Dominguez kicked three dropkicks and some penalties and they scored a try just before the death. They were deserving winners. On the day they were ferocious in the tackle."

Kaplan has visited New Zealand 10 times during his career. Travelling, though, is not the part of the job that really grabs him. "I tell you, it's not as glamorous a lifestyle as people would like to believe. In terms of relationships and friendships, it's a tough life. But make no mistake - I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.

"I've waited half my life for a game like this. I've been thinking about the game - I've never reffed at this level before, so I can't really comment on how I will go. I've refereed a lot of the players - and if there are problems it won't be for lack of trying. It won't be for lack of endeavour, preparation or desire."

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