Paul Lewis: Bring back neutral referees

Referee Paul Williams reacts during the round two Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Blues. Getty Images.
Referee Paul Williams reacts during the round two Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Blues. Getty Images.

It's time to go back to neutral referees - and that might just solve Super Rugby's TMO problem.

The good, old video refs are rugby's new villains. Created to get a sensible decision from potentially controversial situations, they have succeeded in generating their own controversies, some completely incomprehensible.

It calls to mind the good-looking 31-year-old poster woman for the gun lobby in the US - shot in the back recently by her four-year-old while driving, possibly the ultimate in irony. The TMOs have shot themselves in the foot and, for advocates of technology for accuracy, it's a bitter irony.

If you watched the Stormers-Brumbies game in the previous round of Super Rugby, the problem was obvious. The referee, the bloke on the field who is supposed to have the final say, lost control - TV producers and TMOs are influencing the refs way too much.

Making it worse was that all officials at the match were South African, from referee Jaco Peyper to assistant referees Jaco van Heerden and Cwengile Jadezweni and Marius Jonker, the TMO.

The Brumbies were hard done by.

Let's put one thing to bed straight away. There is no suggestion these blokes are deliberately seeking to influence the outcome of a match. But there certainly is a suggestion local officials can influence that outcome.

This is no return to the South African rugby way All Blacks of a certain age remember only too well, when referees were not just arbiters of a game but defenders of the entire system of apartheid. Like the infamous Gert Bezuidenhout, who whistled the All Blacks out of the 1976 series in South Africa and who was targeted by the All Blacks when they saw him at the airport on their departure.

"Listen boys, you can go to your home," said Bezuidenhout. "I have to live here."

Apartheid may no longer be a factor - the white regime had to be seen to be superior to the mixed race All Blacks - but local pressure is alive and well.

Here's what happened in the Stormers-Brumbies game: At 16-11 and the Brumbies pressing hard to make up the deficit, a Brumbies kick was nudged into touch by a Stormers defender. Brumbies' ball close to the line; this a side known to have scored a few tries by rolling maul.

The assistant ref flagged a Stormers' throw-in, clearly wrong. Cue two things: a voluble Brumbies' protest with Peyper responding: "He's made a call, we have to trust his decision."

Well, actually, no you don't. A referee can overrule a linesman at any stage. The other strange happening was the replays. Given endless airings when it benefited the Stormers, they suddenly dried up like a bit of spit on a Death Valley rock.

It was a crucial moment. The Brumbies lost their impetus after that and after a spurious try to Stormers wing Dillyn Leyds. He spilled the ball in the tackle when scoring. It was clearly not a try - underlined by an honest Leyds who rose shaking his head as his team congratulated him. Players always know when they have scored or not. But after countless replays Jonker, a former Super Rugby and World Cup referee, ruled it a try. It was a ludicrous, cringeworthy decision that should have shamed him as Leyds grinned and mugged at his team-mates. What a farce.

A bit of background? The week before, the Stormers were hugely chunked off with Jonker when, as TMO, he awarded a penalty try to the Sharks after Stormers and Springbok flanker Siya Kolisi jammed his foot between ball and ground as Sharks halfback Cobus Reinach tried to score. Jonker ruled a penalty try and somehow called Kolisi's foot foul play, even though he didn't try to kick the ball out of hand, earning the flanker a yellow card. Former referee Jonathan Kaplan, for a time the best in the world, disagreed with Jonker's call.

A week later, Jonker is TMO for the Stormers match again. So was the Leyds try against the Brumbies a make-up call by Jonker, even subconsciously? We'll never know but let's say this: such things are not unknown.

Which is why Super Rugby needs neutral referees, who can take the interference of local TV producers in their stride, even if the latter is a sad fact of life these days and can, it must be said, right some wrongs. It's when they constantly press the replay button to bring the crowd into play and change the referee's mind that replay becomes reprehensible.

The TMO should also be a neutral. That might take care of at least some of the howlers seen already this season. Don't give me that stuff about costs - not after expansion to 18 teams and a bigger broadcast fee.

Keep the assistants as locals but ensure referees exercise what they always used to have - total control - and the TMO is servant rather than master. Even then, there will be mistakes (the ref in the Sharks-Stormers schemozzle was Kiwi Mike Fraser and he didn't overrule Jonker). But at least errors under neutrals won't have a Bezuidenhout smell and the nasty taste of farce.

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