Super Rugby is in trouble. And the repetitive nature of the marathon tournament is not perhaps its chief problem. Audiences are beginning to realise the dark truth about modern rugby – in a contest between evenly matched sides, it is the referee who chooses a winner.
In at least two Super Rugby finals, referees have publicly admitted to making a mistake that changed the outcome of the game. In 2007, Steve Walsh confessed he may have missed something when Derick Kuün crawled beneath a ruck to steal the ball that would lead to Bryan Habana’s overtime try.
Last year, Craig Joubert gallantly apologised to the Crusaders for awarding a dubious tournament-winning penalty to the Waratahs.
But pause and contemplate that for a second – twice, after nearly eight months of rugby, the referee admits that the wrong side won the tournament.
Such an admission was glibly digested by the media, but certainly no sporting spectacle can truly withstand such continual assaults on its basic sporting integrity before it begins to wither, before the public begins to lose interest, with nothing but a gut feeling that the sport has lost its sparkle.
This year the trend of poor refereeing has intensified.
The Bulls managed to defeat the Sharks at home a few weeks ago after a try was allowed by the television match official (TMO) even though the whole audience could see the final pass of the movement had obviously gone forward.
The Sharks themselves were the beneficiaries of another strange TMO decision this weekend when a fairly straightforward Force try was disallowed because of apparently inconclusive evidence.
Blatantly illegal scrumming
Meanwhile, the Crusaders continue to win dominance at scrum time with blatantly illegal scrumming (Coenie Oosthuizen, bizarrely, was sent off for being on the receiving end of this two weeks ago). It seems as though every match is marred by constantly reset scrums with referees either arbitrarily awarding penalties or allowing minutes to tick by while players, in the midst of heaving forces, try to follow the ever-changing scrum instructions.
Poor decisions are only part of the refereeing problem. The Sharks victory over the Chiefs saw three red cards in the first half alone (the cards were quite correctly given), but the game ground to a standstill as each decision was scrutinised for a few minutes while the team of referees conferred.
This is typical – whenever the TMO is consulted, the audience has to endure some of the most mind-numbing fumbles at communication between officials speaking what seems to be some kind of ad hoc official language that defies clarity.
Sometimes the TMO is mystifyingly absent from the match – for example, in a previous round Hurricanes lock James Broadhurst knocked an opponent unconscious, off the ball, with his knee, yet, despite repeated replays, unlike the Sharks match, no action was taken during play.
Why do such inconsistencies continue to occur?
There is no easy answer. Perhaps there are just not that many good referees available. When you have officials missing obvious forward passes such a notion becomes highly plausible. In this case, the structure of the various official bodies must be questioned.
It is also clear that the laws of the game have become so open to varying interpretations that drastic simplification is required. One only has to listen to the ref constantly barking at players terms such as “daylight”, “tackler assist” and “hinging” to realise interpretations of the rules have taken on a life of their own, with not much connection to the old traditions of the game.
It is only rugby’s long (and admirable) tradition of accepting any and all stupidity on the part of the officials that is keeping the game from tearing itself apart. But in a world in which Super Rugby competes for an audience to stay alive, this amateur virtue will not last forever. If nothing changes, rugby faces two looming threats.
First, refereeing consistency is already eating away at many a team’s desire to attack. It is simply too risky to launch play from your own half if you are unsure of what the ref will do next. Second, if viewers know the result of a close game is probably going to go the way of the irrational whim of a referee, they simply won’t invest their time in watching it.
The whole appeal of sport is a structured and fair contest. If that goes, one might as well be watching professional wrestling – at least wrestling scripts its unsporting moments into some kind of a coherent storyline.
Rugby has already shot itself in the foot with its behemoth competitions. Unless quick action is taken, the slow poison of consistently shocking refereeing could be the finishing of it.