As the five Super Rugby Aotearoa teams gather themselves for the final few weeks of a remarkable competition notable for its overall excellence – any of the Crusaders, Blues or Hurricanes could win it for heaven's sake, and nearly every match has become an instant classic – a nagging concern remains that the players and indeed the referees aren't getting the support they need from officialdom.
The misfortune suffered by the Chiefs over the past few weeks has been well covered but anyone sitting in Eden Park's east stand last Sunday afternoon could see that Blues lock Josh Goodhue wasn't on his feet when he won a final, decisive penalty on his own try line as he prevented opposing No8 Pita Gus Sowakula from scoring and it ultimately won the game for the home side.
It's understood a directive has come from on high that referees must make bold decisions and not seek second opinions from television match officials in order to keep games flowing but surely their priority must be to make correct decisions with the technology available.
Referees boss Bryce Lawrence publicly hopes players don't lose their respect for officials after Sam Cane, Anton Lienert-Brown and Aaron Cruden made their disappointment clear to referee Brendon Pickerill after that controversial decision in the 21-17 victory by the Blues but it must be difficult to keep frustrations in check when one feels an obvious injustice has been handed out. The same applies to the crowd and all those watching on television.
"I can understand the emotion, I can understand the pressure, I can understand that in the 79th minute it feels like life or death but I absolutely think that we need to remember the values of rugby and that is respect the match officials and if you're the captain you have the opportunity to discuss things with the match officials if you can do it in an appropriate way," Lawrence said.
Well, yes, but I'm inclined to sympathise with Lienert-Brown a little more. "In big moments, we've got the TMO for a reason," he told Newstalk ZB. Well said, and yet that perfectly fair assumption no longer appears to be based on reality.
It's also a bit difficult to hold the moral high ground when you're forced to apologise for your official's mistakes on a near weekly basis.
The intensity of the all-derby games has been on a different level to anything we've seen in Super Rugby before. They are a wonderful celebration of the Kiwi game and the nation's success against Covid-19, so they don't require referees to make snap judgments in order to improve them. The so-called "product" is pretty damned good already.
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The danger is that referees, through no fault of their own, are undermining themselves by not seeking assistance and they and the players deserve better than that.
A far better direction would be to remove actual time-wasting, and this is also where referees could be helped by their TMOs.
A quirk of the competition has been a relatively low number of scrums – there were only 32 (including resets) in the first four matches – so early on at least that knuckle-chewing time thief of a set piece was less of a factor than it has become recently.
As the Crusaders chased the game against the Hurricanes in Christchurch, the home side's attacking scrum was reset three times as the clock ticked into the final quarter. Result – about six minutes lost – and yet the referees still have no authority to stop the clock for scrums. On balance the Hurricanes probably deserved to win the match 34-32 but the Crusaders, who scored 12 points in the final 13 minutes, would have dearly loved that precious time added back on.
There is other, more cynical and subtle, time-wasting occurring too, such as players taking boots off for a breather and constantly walking in and out of lineouts in order to break up the pace of a match, but if officials can't get the big, obvious, decisions right when they have all the help they need, there's little chance of them noticing the hard-to-see stuff.
In short, more leg-work and less guess-work please.