Rugby Union

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A tale of wrong referees and unfair advantage

TOM Keneally, wordsmith, describes the hype before big matches as the foreplay. Not unexpectedly, the qualifying finals between the Crusaders and Bulls and the Reds and Sharks have generated intense discussion. We've had accusations that the Reds shouldn't have their home-ground advantage. There has been heated discussion about the appointing of South African referees to officiate at the two finals. And rows over whether the often non-tackling Quade Cooper deserved his week's suspension for a dangerous tackle on Berrick Barnes. My short answer is: no.

SANZAR makes a valid point that the winning conference team having a home-ground advantage in the finals is the natural outcome of having a tournament played in three countries. To maintain an interest in the finals in all three countries each conference needs to be guaranteed one home match final. The system does this. I think, though, it should be tweaked to allow the grand final to be played at the home ground of the team that has won the most points in the pool rounds. There is the possibility (admittedly remote) that the Reds and the Crusaders could meet in the final. This would be played at Brisbane. Fairness requires it should be played at Christchurch. The Crusaders finished higher on the points table than the Reds.

I wouldn't hold my breath about SANZAR making this reasonable change. For, on another important matter involving fairness, SANZAR has failed miserably. I am talking about the appointment of the referees for tonight's matches. Jonathan Kaplan is refereeing the Reds-Sharks match and Jaco Peyper is refereeing the Crusaders-Bulls match. Kaplan and Peyper are South Africans. It is not acceptable for the integrity of the finals matches, nor is it fair to the referees that they be placed in the situation where allegations of "home country decisions" can be raised.

SANZAR's game manager Lyndon Bray, a New Zealander and a former excellent referee, has stated that these appointments fulfil three key criteria - overall performance throughout the tournament, accuracy in the big calls and "the right fit for the game". I don't buy this argument. It overlooks the protocol (except in Super Rugby) that neutrals should referee big matches. Kaplan, also, is past his best. Why is Craig Joubert, South Africa's best referee and referee in the 2011 RWC final, not officiating rather than running the sideline as an assistant referee?

The assertion that Peyper is the "right fit" for the Crusaders-Bulls finals is even more ludicrous. Peyper is promising but overrated. He was the referee at Pretoria when two Bulls alleged they were eye-gouged by Crusaders players. Not a shred of evidence was brought forward to justify the allegations. SANZAR has white-washed some unacceptable gamesmanship by the Bulls. The allegations came when the Crusaders were well on top in the match. After the allegations, the tide of the game changed. On the back of eight successful penalties out of 10 attempts kicked by Morne Steyn, the Bulls won 32-30. There was also a controversial and wrong shepherding decision by Peyper (on advice of an assistant referee) overruling a Crusaders try near the end.

We come back to Tom Keneally to explain why SANZAR just doesn't get it with its policy against neutral referees. The great Sea Eagles tragic, told the Herald in relation to the big Manly-Canterbury match: "I'm as irrational as anyone when it comes to supporting my footy team - I seem to naturally have it in for the referees." The point is that the referees are not biased, the supporters are. SANZAR is pouring oil on a fire by having nationals refereeing sides from their own country in the finals.

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