Of all the absurdities of rugby – rolling mauls, dormant offside rules, scrum resets – perhaps the most ridiculous is the attempt to shelter referees from player and fan criticism.
Why? Why is there this cone of silence over how a referee performs? The latest statements from New Zealand Rugby only highlight the silliness of trying to preserve the reputation of refs in the age of social media. It's like shutting all the windows against a plague of wasps but leaving the front door open.
After both Ardie Savea and Aaron Smith had a recent dig at the refereeing in Super Rugby, NZ Rugby spokesman Chris Lendrum felt compelled to deliver a rebuke of his own.
The two skippers employed phrases like "getting robbed all the time" (Smith) and "We get an apology the next week, but it's too late. Without saying anything disrespectful, I'd just love the officials to demand better" (Savea).
Hardly vicious criticism; Lendrum said that players are encouraged to be passionate but he didn't endorse the outbursts and "respect for referees is a pretty critical value in our game".
Sorry, but how exactly can one be passionate but restrained? It's like being hot and cold at the same time. It makes no sense.
Players are rewarded or punished for form or mistakes; their reputations and abilities are under scrutiny all the time. Whether it's the national selectors or the armchair variety, players are fair game for the full range of opinions, biases and perspectives from fans and media. Why not refs?
There are two main reasons why rugby's archaic cosseting of refs needs to change: first, if you want to engender respect for someone, be transparent and open about the good and the bad – don't hide it away behind closed doors.
Second, Super Rugby isn't doing all that great. Viewing audiences are down on what they were before Covid-19 – and there are some doubts they will return to previous levels. Controversy is a great drawcard.
As Lendrum quite rightly says, the game of rugby is so complex and fast these days mistakes will be made – but that "shouldn't be our focus". Sure, not the sole focus. But own the mistakes, use them, live with them.
What about this – instead of Secret Squirrel referee administration and suppression, open it up. Allow players to say what they like post-match. Press conferences could include referees to answer questions, even ticklish ones. Players have to learn to cope with media and public fuss; why not refs?
If that's too confronting for some, then what about this: rugby could start a league table for refs. It would be amended and published every week after each round of competition, a sort of power rankings or a version of what newspapers often run after test matches – the good old "player ratings".
Referees boss Bryce Lawrence could be the custodian of these tables, with, say, the top four winning the right to premium consideration for internationals and other plums. Lawrence and his team could even provide brief commentary to outline why an individual has climbed or fallen on the ladder.
Respect, you say? Watch respect for refs ratchet up if they are answering questions honestly and transparently – or even verbally jousting with critics. Watch it rise even more as fans and media watch a ref's progress in the tables instead of doing everything in secret and treating refs like they are sainted bodies.
Lawrence was a talented international referee who sometimes felt the blowback deeply, retiring after the 2011 Rugby World Cup following criticism of his handling of the quarter-final between South Africa and Australia.
So why, I hear you say, advocate a system that brings refs potentially more into the public eye? Because (a) you'll never entirely block such criticism, no matter what you do; hiding underground only makes it worse and (b) generally speaking, you earn respect if you stand up straight and tell the truth – plus you have a greater degree of control of the discourse.
Referees Brendon Pickerill (Savea's game) and Angus Mabey (Smith's) did pretty well. Okay, Mabey missed the cleanout that saw Asafo Aumua banned for three games – but so did most of us on the TV coverage. The right decision was made in not awarding the Highlanders that last-minute try.
I don't know Pickerill but Mabey is a talented young ref who is not short of a word or two and could easily hold his own in a public arena. They both look like they want to let the game flow – which rugby sorely needs and which often distinguishes the best.
Players and fans remember the best. In an undistinguished rugby career, I was lucky enough to play in games refereed by Paddy O'Brien, Colin Hawke and, long ago, Frank McMullen and John Pring. All were fine communicators and professionals (used in a quality sense, rather than as a paid participant) and were highly regarded.
That's where we need to lift the status of rugby referees to. It won't happen if the refs continue to be dealt with in the dark. Bring them into the open.