World Cup ref clocks precious game time

Craig Joubert would like to see more youngsters learning to officiate in the game. (Franck Fife, AFP)

Craig Joubert would like to see more youngsters learning to officiate in the game. (Franck Fife, AFP)

South Africa’s top referee, Craig Joubert, will not be in action in Super Rugby this weekend. Instead he will be officiating a match between his old school, Maritzburg College, and Michaelhouse in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. It is a rare weekend at home for the Durban-based Joubert, whose wife is expecting their second child in September.

This year he has clocked up even more air miles than usual, thanks to the World Cup.
Not the one just finished, but the 2015 version to be held in England, qualification for which began in March with the unlikely fixture of Mexico vs Jamaica. It has become a tradition for the referee of the World Cup final to take charge of the first qualifier on the road to the next tournament. The head of refereeing matters for the International Rugby Board is Paddy O’Brien. Joubert takes up the story.

“I was in Sydney at a preseason Sanzar get-together when I got an email from Paddy asking if I was aware of the tradition and would I be available. It worked out quite well, because I wasn’t down for a Super Rugby game that weekend and the previous week I was in Cardiff for what turned out to be the Grand Slam decider between Wales and France. If I’d been in South Africa, I would have had to fly via London anyway and I’d never been anywhere near Mexico before and so, of course, I said I’d love to go.”

Joubert travelled to Mexico City in the company of the rugby board’s president, Bernard Lapasset, and its communications manager, Dominic Rumbles. Oh, and there was a fourth member of the delegation too: the William Webb Ellis trophy. “I don’t know what it costs to insure it to travel, but Dom never let it out of his sight for the whole trip! He looked after it like a long-lost child.

“When we arrived we went to watch a game of rugby at one of the universities, I did a refereeing talk with the local refs and on the eve of the match we all sat down to a real Mexican meal with the local administrators. We also met the Jamaican delegation, who were so proud to be chosen to play in the opening game. I was blown away by the enthusiasm for the game in places that you and I wouldn’t even have known played rugby at all.

Mexican wave in Mexico
“The quality of the ground really exceeded my expectations – great playing surface – and a record crowd for a game in Mexico of 2000 people came and watched. The whole day had a carnival atmosphere to it with the trophy on display and a queue to the end of the field for people to come and have their photo taken with it. The highlight was that I got to see a Mexican wave in Mexico!

“Mexico were the far superior team. They had more structure, thanks, probably, to a Kiwi player and coach. The Jamaicans were far more ‘play it as you see it’: they scored some great tries and, as you’d expect, they had a couple of pacy wings, but the Mexicans were bigger, stronger and tactically superior, so they won comfortably in the end.”

At the end of the trip Joubert travelled back to South Africa. The following Saturday he was in action at Newlands in front of 44000 people for the Stormers vs Bulls game. “So in terms of my refereeing career, I had gone from a full house of 88 000 people in Cardiff for the decider in the biggest tournament in the northern hemisphere, to a really unique occasion in Mexico in front of a record crowd, to a sold-out match in one of the iconic stadiums in South Africa.”

Joubert has literally and figuratively travelled a long way since he began refereeing while still a schoolboy at Maritzburg College. The headmaster of the school, Ron Jury, presented him with a commemorative plaque after his achievements at last year’s World Cup. He has also been involved in the rugby career of the school’s first-team scrumhalf Josh Rencken.

Rencken is a cancer survivor, having contracted leukaemia two years ago. He was unable to play for a year after having treatment, but because he loved the game he took up refereeing. Joubert heard about Rencken and drove up one Saturday morning to speak to him and support him at one of his first games as a referee.

“I think that’s what we as referees would hope that there would be a lot more of – young kids who love the game but for whatever reason can’t play, getting involved. I’m always happy to share my story. The Maritzburg Referees Society ran a schoolboys course when I was at school. Nine of us showed up and one of the guys remains a best mate to this day. We had so much fun.”

The moral of the story is that, whether it is in Cape Town, Cardiff, Mexico City or Balgowan, the chap with the slightly disbelieving smile on his face is Craig Joubert.

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