Mark Reason: Bullying to blame for referee crisis

MARK REASON
Last updated 10:18 09/02/2014

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OPINION: South Africa has been successful at three rugby World Cup finals. England, Wales and Ireland have each gone all the way on one occasion. Even Australia, for goodness sake, had a lone, early victory. But New Zealand has never been to the big show. I am talking about the referee at the rugby World Cup final.

New Zealand's lack of recognition at the top level isn't just because they have been finalists three times. South Africa have been ineligible four times, twice for political reasons, and yet they supplied the ref for the final in 1999, 2003 and 2011. The reason that New Zealand has yet to take charge of a rugby World Cup final is that the standard of refereeing in this country is bewilderingly low.

That is not just my view. Many a current and ex referee will tell you the same thing. So it got me wondering why the most knowledgeable rugby country in the world tended to produce such mediocre referees. We are all looking forward to the Super 15 season, but the biggest worry for fans, coaches and players will be the standard of refereeing.

Perhaps the biggest problem that New Zealand referees have is this country's culture of intimidation. Aaron Cruden, not a man to frighten the livestock, has just been appointed co-captain at the Chiefs.

Cruden's first words were, "It's a challenge that I'm going to really look forward to throughout the season and hopefully bring my own style to it. I don't mind speaking to the referee as a 10. I always try and get in the referee's ear anyway, so now it gives me a bit of a licence to go up and have a chat.

"If Liam's comfortable going to talk to the referee about maybe more things that refer to the forwards, then I'm happy for him to do that. And if he wants me to do the same if the referee has a problem with some of the backline stuff that's going on."

It is hard to imagine too many European players saying such things on their captaincy appointment. But intimidating referees is part of New Zealand's rugby culture and it goes a long way to explaining why their teams are so successful and their referees so timid.

Mike Fraser, the referee at last year's junior World Cup final, ran the line at last weekend's Six Nations match between Ireland and Scotland. Was Fraser overawed by the atmosphere at Lansdowne Road, was he cowed by the presence of Craig Joubert as ref or intimidated by players he did not know well?

Whatever the reason, Fraser opted out. He was perfectly placed to tell Joubert that Jim Hamilton had pulled down an Ireland maul a metre from the line. He saw Ross Ford stamp on Jonny Sexton and Stuart Hogg alter his running line in order to impede and trip David Kearney. But Fraser was as vocal as a goldfish. He took the easy way out.

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The typical diffidence of refs in this country can, I believe, be explained by rugby's culture of bullying. New Zealand refs of yesteryear will tell you that Sean Fitzpatrick and Andy Hayden were absolute shockers at bending their ear. With the modern practice of refs communicating to the players has come even more invitation to verbal thuggery.

The reaction to New Zealand's loss to France in the quarter-final of the 2007 World Cup exemplified the sin of dissent. Yes, Wayne Barnes made mistakes. But it is not on for Graham Henry, coach and knight of the realm, to imply Barnes may have been dodgy. It is not on for captain McCaw to accuse Barnes of being "frozen with fear" just because he didn't let himself be influenced by an All Blacks captain.

Even Helen Clark, the prime minister at the time, said, "I think we would like the All Blacks to have put in a strong enough performance for the refereeing - good or bad - not to have been an issue."

Prime ministers should not be commenting on refs, however obliquely.

Under these circumstances, referee recruitment can present a huge challenge. Who was the last Maori whistle blower to reach the top? Who wants to spend their weekend being nagged or threatened?

The amount of travel required also rules out a huge proportion of talented people. Jonathon White, a cardiologist with a young family, has just retired from the panel.

The NZRU also needs to take a look at itself. It has put quite a bit of money into referee development, but sources tell me that too much is spent by individual unions on administration matters and not enough on the identification and coaching of promising talent.

Rod Hill, the NZRU's high performance refereeing manager, says, "We're always looking to improve. It's not an easy task. Some of the stuff on the sidelines is not attractive.

"One of our big opportunities is finding players with significant experience and understanding who will step into blowing the whistle. Glen Jackson has brought huge value to the reffing team. He will explain to other Super 15 refs the implications on a team and a match of letting things go.

"We are starting a scholarship programme this year so that players with top level experience can follow Glen into refereeing. We want to capture that knowledge. We're due to announce shortly the recruitment of a significant player with at least a dozen years of experience."

It is progress, but there is a long way to go. At the moment there is just about no chance that a New Zealander will ref the final next year if the All Blacks don't make it through. Jackson might have a chance in Japan in 2019, but he is a long shot.

At the moment the bullies are keeping too many good men and women out of reffing. The dearth of good referees is a national problem and the Star Times would love to hear your comments and solutions.

- Sunday Star Times

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