Unless you’ve spent the last seven days holidaying in a different part of our solar system, you will have seen one of rugby’s most contentious and high-profile refereeing decisions play out in Auckland last Saturday.
For the benefit of the interstellar travellers out there, the weekend’s Rugby Championship clash between South Africa and the All Blacks saw Springbok hooker Bismarck Du Plessis yellow-carded for a crunching tackle on Dan Carter. French official, Romain Poite, asserted that Du Plessis’ massive hit was illegal. Successive video replays showed this to be false, but the Frenchman had made up his mind and crucially instructed Television Match Official (TMO) George Ayoub to check only for foul play in the scuffle that came after the hooker’s challenge.
In an era where elite referees are oft accused of an overly-pedantic and unnecessary reliance on the TMO – whose role in the game is ever-increasing – it was at least encouraging to see an official make a real-time decision, and with such conviction. However, with the technology at his disposal, the ability to review the incident himself on the big screen, or have the TMO do so, there was little excuse for Poite’s call, particularly given how game-altering it proved to be.
Du Plessis was later correctly shown a second yellow for leading with his elbow into a tackle, amounting to a red card, and depriving the Springboks of arguably their top performer. With the hooker’s final departure, the game was effectively over as a contest, and the hosts retained and extended their proud record at Eden Park.
That one of the most eagerly-anticipated and engrossing test match battles was dominated by refereeing decisions left an overriding feeling of disappointment. Spectators and fans gave voice in the days that followed to their frustration at being “short-changed” by the eventual non-contest. The uproar in South Africa is all the more understandable given what was at stake, and that many believed Satuday’s fixture offered a realistic chance of a rare victory on New Zealand soil.
Nonetheless, neither the inaccuracy of the decision nor the magnitude of the occasion justifies the torrent of abuse flowing from all around the rugby world in the direction of Romain Poite and the IRB. Even certain household names within the sport have taken their criticism of Poite’s ruling several steps too far. The Frenchman is one of the world’s most distinguished and accomplished referees, and to see a single mistake spark a mass movement against him is at best unsavoury, and at worst, disgraceful.
Currently, a Facebook group entitled “Petition To Stop Romain Poite Ever Reffing A Rugby Game Again” is sitting at over sixty-thousand likes. This online campaign has an altogether familiar air to it, with a similarly titled page on the site hitting out at Kiwi official Bryce Lawrence in the wake of the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final between Australia and South Africa. The Springboks had felt aggrieved after that game at Lawrence’s interpretation of the breakdown, particularly with regards to Wallaby flanker David Pocock’s legality while contesting for the ball.
Speaking last year to the NZ Herald, Lawrence admits the movement against him ‘got pretty nasty’.
“Not really threats on my family as such, there was a concern, but it was mainly aimed at me through social media,” he said. The safety fears this raised prevented him from taking charge of games in South Africa, and eventually forced his retirement from refereeing at the age of just forty-one. He now works as the NZRU’s high performance referee reviewer.
This week, I spoke to Wayne Barnes, another elite official who has suffered at the hands of such online insult, and overcome a number of setbacks in his career with the whistle. The Englishman is keen to point out that the perception that referees are not held responsible for their mistakes is one that is entirely false.
“As someone who’s been stood down from internationals, someone who’s been taken off the international panel, and someone who’s been stood down from Premiership rugby – the belief that we’re not accountable is not right. If a player doesn’t perform, they are accountable to their coach or director of rugby, the same as I am to my bosses if I don’t perform,” said Barnes. “We’re assessed, scrutinised, supervised in every single match. We do a self-analysis of every single match. Each coach gets input into our performance review via our managers. Also, we’re pretty harsh on each other as well. That idea that we aren’t accountable is wrong – I can tell you from personal experience that we very much are.”
Barnes also sought to dispel the misconception that referees are not, first and foremost, fans of the game they officiate. “People don’t understand that referees are massive fans of the game. We actually enjoy rugby. The reason we got into rugby is that we love the game, and want to be involved in the game. For whatever reason, we’ve ended up retiring from playing and refereeing instead. But we still love the game, and love going down to our local clubhouse, having a few pints with our friends, watching our international team on TV and cheering them on.”
Barnes has experienced first-hand the vitriol from fans, having incurred the wrath of much of New Zealand following the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final between the All Blacks and France. Many were upset by his decision to yellow-card Kiwi Luke McAlister, and claimed he failed to spot a forward pass in the lead-up to the crucial second French try. He feels, however, that the bile and contempt that reared its ugly head anew this week is detrimental to the sport and its wider image.
“Someone on Twitter or Facebook doesn’t really know the kind of world that’s out there. I think we’ve all got a duty to uphold what is special about the game. What everyone loves about our game is this idea of the mutual respect between teams, referees and fans. People abusing players or referees isn’t good for our game. Sure, we have to be able to learn from each other and hold our hands up when we make mistakes, but someone screaming abuse at me from the touchline, or screaming abuse at a player from the touchline or online – it’s not good for the game or what we should really applaud about our game.
“The idea of respect and discipline is what makes us unique, and what I believe is our unique selling point.”
Put simply, the abuse and derision hurled at Poite over the past seven days is not befitting the sport of rugby union, or the values it embodies and holds so dear. The Frenchman recognises he made a mistake, and has officially acknowledged so. The IRB have issued a statement as such, and wiped the red card from Du Plessis’ record.
It may be that Poite is stood down from international matches for a period, but one is left desperately hoping that his career does not follow the same path as Lawrence’s. As Barnes points out, respect is a key pillar of the sport, and something that has largely been upheld throughout the professional era. It sets rugby apart from so many of its contemporaries, and it is something the game cannot allow to be lost – least of all in favour of the ill-conceived spite that at present threatens to tarnish its reputation.
Read more from Wayne Barnes in Jamie’s in-depth report on the IRB’s scrum directive, coming soon on the blog.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images