With a lot hanging on tomorrow's test match, you worry a bit, just a teensy bit, about World Rugby's decision to go with non-neutral referees.
The sad fact was that last weekend's ref, New Zealander Paul Williams, didn't have the greatest of games. There was high-octane whining from some Aussie commentators over perceived penalties not blown at the death which would have given the match to the Wallabies.
My scepticism is triggered by the lack of mention from the same commentators of the two late hits on Richie Mo'unga which should have resulted at least in penalties and probably in yellow cards – likely giving the match to the All Blacks.
They were the sort of hits that referees and TMOs – able to call the referee's attention to foul play – often stop the game for; they went strangely unnoticed or unenforced.
We'll never know the answer to this but you always wonder whether having a home ref leads to one of two outcomes: an unconscious bias towards the home team or an unconscious bias against the home team by leaning too far the other way in an effort to be fair.
We know part of the answer – I don't believe there is a first-class referee in the world with a conscious bias and tomorrow's ref, Australia's Angus Gardner, was voted best Super Rugby referee by a long way in a New Zealand player survey. However, he was also the bloke who missed Rieko Ioane's boot on the touchline in the build-up to Jordie Barrett's try in the first test. Whoops.
So why aren't we having neutral referees for this series? Covid-19, sure, but presumably Gardner has been through a 14-day quarantine, so neutral refs must have been a possibility – are you hearing me, World Rugby?
Neutral refs were shown to be pretty much essential earlier this year in an informal study published on Australia's Green and Gold Rugby site.
It was pretty damning. The study took in matches from 2017 to 2020 with hometown referees in charge against foreign opposition. While it is by no means absolutely definitive, it showed Australian refs had favoured their home teams by awarding them 16 more penalties than the opposition. Argentinian refs awarded their home teams 19 more penalties than the other guys.
New Zealand refs were actually harder on their hometown teams – they awarded the opposition 15 more penalties than the New Zealand teams received. You wonder if that's what happened to Williams with the Mo'unga matter – over-correction – though it must be said that the penalty count from the first test was 14-7 in New Zealand's favour.
South Africa? Oh, their Super Rugby refs awarded their teams 159 more penalties than the opposition. That's a shedload of penalties. If we guess that only a quarter of those may have been kickable, that's still a potential 120 points made available to the South African teams.
Other evidence? What about a 2014 study by the Queensland University of Technology, looking closely at Super Rugby and Europe's Super League. It found that 71 per cent of matches controlled by a referee of the same nationality as the home team were won by that same home team. Last year RugbyPass showed international teams lost the penalty count 96-47 when playing in South Africa against the Bulls, Lions, Stormers, and Sharks with a South African referee.
In this day and age neutral referees are as essential as a set of goal posts at either end of the field. That holds true even if neutral refs perform like boiled potatoes or, worse, panic. If you remember the 2017 Lions tour, two French referees became deux hommes perplexe (two puzzled men) in the daft mix-up over the last-minute penalty that would have swung the series to the All Blacks. Neutrality is no guarantee of competence, it must be acknowledged, but it does tend to remove suspicion and nationalism.
Neutral refs also guard against another referee quirk – the make-up call. The one that stuck in my mind was in Super Rugby a few years back when Stormers wing Dillyn Leyds spilled the ball in a tackle when scoring against the Brumbies.
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. Eh, Rieko?
However, after countless replays the TMO, a former Super Rugby and World Cup referee, somehow ruled a try. It was a woeful decision that should have seen him gain automatic entry to rugby's Hall Of Shame. Leyds grinned and mugged at his teammates. It was an obvious injustice, farcical.
The week before, the Stormers had been hugely upset with the TMO at their match against another Bok franchise when he wrongly awarded a penalty try against the Stormers. You guessed it – same TMO. So was the ludicrous call to award Leyds' try a week later a make-up call?
We'll never be certain but this is for sure – such things have been known. Neutral officials, while far from foolproof, at least protect us from foolishness.