Rugby World Cup
Lack of clear voice killing referee consistency
Sam Bruce
December 16, 2014
Inconsistencies in the refereeing of the scrum and use of TMO were common during November © Getty Images

Former leading referee Jonathan Kaplan has slammed the lack of a clear voice for officials at the top level, believing many of the mistakes made in Test rugby can be avoided if the whistle-blowers are given greater direction from World Rugby.

Speaking exclusively to ESPN following the November series, Kaplan said he was most concerned by the lack of consistency in approach - particularly in regards to the scrum and the use of video technology - and he pointed the finger squarely at World Rugby.

"I thought parts of it were good but my main concern is the lack of consistency in approach and I've said this over and over again; it's not the poor referees' fault, it's the fact we need a dedicated coach to help these guys to get uniformity," Kaplan told ESPN. "There are a lot of different styles and we all appreciate that; everyone has got a different way of managing things. But I just think, as an example, the maul, I'm not sure there was a consistency in approach that the game actually needs and particularly at that [Test] level.

"When I was reffing, my boss was Andre Watson locally; at SANZAR level, Lyndon Bray; and then at international level, Joel Jutge; and each one of them had their own bugbears. They've got their own thing that they were particularly strong on. So the referees are answerable to three different people and that can't be healthy."

Kaplan expressed his thoughts on the standard of officiating throughout the November series, using his blog to pick apart the good and bad from an engaging month of Test action. The use of the Television Match Official and the growing influence of TV networks were two of the biggest issues, and Kaplan joined Welsh great John Taylor, an ESPN columnist, in bemoaning the breakdown of protocol in the use of the fourth official.

"Firstly, I think that this was probably the worst year ever for TMO decisions and referee-TMO relations," Kaplan told ESPN. "The communication that existed this year, it started off terribly, there were some adjustments made about halfway through Super Rugby, and then it got slightly better. If you look at some of the instances from Test-match rugby, I think that this is something that the IRB [World Rugby] need to look at. For me, technology is here to stay. You cannot get away from it because if you go backwards, the television networks are going to start replaying things over and over again and the referee is going to look even more stupid; and so will the game. They can never go backwards to my mind."

One of the major gripes in the use of technology came in New Zealand's 24-21 win over England at Twickenham. Referee Nigel Owens - whom Kaplan says is one of only two men capable of refereeing the Rugby World Cup final, along with Craig Joubert - seemed to be swayed, in making a decision to sin-bin Dane Coles, by big-screen replays of the All Blacks hooker lashing out with his boot.

The use of big-screen replays hit the headlines following New Zealand's win over England © Getty Images

There was previously a similar situation in the Rugby Championship clash between the Springboks and All Blacks in Johannesburg, although on that occasion the TMO had alerted referee Wayne Barnes to an incident that required his attention. In both cases it could be argued the correct decision was made, but the breakdown in protocol and the questions around the personnel have Kaplan concerned.

"The real question is whether they're using the right personnel," he said. "So are the people that they're using in these [TMO] boxes; are they the right personnel? In my opinion, not. Not always, I think some of these guys are useful. And are the protocols that are in place adequate? And, once again, I don't think they are. So you're getting these interactions that are wholly unsatisfactory. I've seen it the whole year and November did nothing to change my mind. So I think technology is here to stay and I'd like it to, but I'm not seeing a helluva lot that excites me."

Much has been made of the refereeing of the scrum throughout November, with former Wallabies boss Bob Dwyer one of many to take aim at the set-piece tactics of England. Dwyer said England's scrummaging was "totally against the written letter of the law"; it was an assessment with which Kaplan agreed.

"The TMO issue is big and so is scrummaging," Kaplan said. "I do think Australia were also hard done by and I mentioned that in my last piece [on]. You know teams come into a game with a reputation, it doesn't mean they do everything squeaky clean; I thought Australia got butchered in the last game. Their scrum is not incapable."

England's forwards celebrate a try following a powerful five-metre scrum, England v Australia, Twickenham, November 29, 2014
Jonathan Kaplan says Australia's scrum is not "incapable" as commonly perceived © Getty Images

And returning to his earlier point, Kaplan said the inconsistent scrum refereeing could largely be attributed to the lack of a designated referees coach and an absence of appropriate preparation.

"Sometimes I think these referees do not do the greatest preparation because if they did, they would have been able to easily pick up some of the tactics that teams like England use," he said. "And I know sometimes you have got to make unpopular decision but that is really why we are paid to do what we do … to make sure the game is refereed fairly and with the highest level of preparation.

"And once again this goes back to my initial point; if these guys had a coach and the coach had identified tactics that players and teams were doing, I think it would have impacted on decision-making."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Sam Bruce is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum in Australia and New Zealand

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