Ref shocker wrecked a thriller
John Taylor
August 4, 2010

Poor old Cobus Wessels. IRB referees' manager, Paddy O'Brien, said, "we're not going to hang him out to dry" but that is exactly what he has done after the farcical refereeing of the Australia v New Zealand Test in Melbourne last weekend.

The South African official has been publicly dropped as assistant referee for the return match in Christchurch on Saturday, his yellow card call against Drew Mitchell, which later resulted in the player being sent-off, deemed so bad that he has been replaced by a New Zealander, Keith Brown.

The IRB therefore consider him so incompetent they are prepared for a one-off abandonment of their long-established policy of having neutral officials for all international matches.

I am not defending Wessels' decision - it was obviously a complete over-reaction because we never even saw a television replay of the alleged offence and the player himself was heard to comment, "they said 'no arms', I don't even remember it" - but it was just one of many poor calls by the three South African officials.

Referee, Craig Joubert, had a complete shocker and if anybody was going to carry the can it should have been him. He is one of the most honest referees in the game but the occasion - it should have been the defining game of this year's Tri-Nations - obviously got to him because he was twitchy right from the start.

We shall never know what was said in the pre-match briefing but he refereed as if he was expecting trouble. He and his assistants appeared so preoccupied with what might happen off the ball they completely failed to referee the basics.I think New Zealand would probably have won in any case but we shall never know because the first major mistake came just when Australia had made the dream start.

No sooner had Mitchell charged down Dan Carter's kick to score in the corner than Carter did the same at the other end - except his charge down failed and the ball cannoned off Ma'a Nonu, who was a couple of metres behind him, so Carter was way offside when he was allowed to re-gather and score. The only possible explanation for all three officials missing it is that they were not following the action.

The yellow card for Owen Franks soon after showed their mindset. He made a bit of a mess of a tackle, collided with his opponent and found himself in the sin-bin for not using his arms - utter nonsense. It was not a deliberate shoulder charge and when big guys change direction at the point of contact there will be occasions when they bounce off each other. Next came Wessels' mistake. "Report says late and no arms - similar to them," said Joubert as he binned Mitchell.

A warning to the captains for not allowing the opposition to get the ball back into play quickly proved the death sentence for the Waratahs wing. Ten minutes into the second-half he just slapped the ball away as the All Blacks tried to take a quick throw and that was enough for Joubert.

"It's not my responsibility what effect this decision may have on the game," he said as he showed Mitchell a second yellow, which showed that he was totally aware he was effectively ruining the game as a contest.

Of course it was his responsibility. He can claim the moral high ground because he had warned the captains he was not going to tolerate any more time-wasting, and this was a stupid little professional foul, but it was certainly not a yellow card offence in normal circumstances.

A penalty, and a warning that he would have been within his rights to issue another yellow card, would have sufficed but he chose the draconian option. It was obviously weighing on his mind because the longer the match went on the twitchier he became.

There was another incident where McCaw and Sam Whitelock made a double tackle that lifted the player off the ground. Joubert was right on the spot and saw nothing wrong until Jonathan Kaplan intervened.

Suddenly, he changed his tune. "Clearly that sort of tackle's not allowed," he told McCaw before penalising New Zealand but, fortunately, Kaplan could not be sure who was involved or we would have had another player in the bin. Replays confirmed there was absolutely nothing wrong with the tackle - if there had been we would definitely have had a citing.

All this might have been understandable if the match had been overly physical in the early stages but that was never the case. It was all such a pity because, with the Wallabies getting off to a flier, this could have been an epic battle. The hope now is that assistant referees will be instructed to follow the game and concentrate on offside instead of trying to make their presence felt by seeing imaginary skulduggery where none exists.

John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh.

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