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From the sidelines into the fray

Submitted by on Saturday, 6 June 2009No Comment
From the sidelines into the fray

Andre Watson, whose big mouth launched his career, says the ref is the one guy on the field who isn’t ever supposed to drop the ball.

Apparently you are a very good golfer; you once beat Ernie Els?

At the time he was plain E. Els – he wasn’t the Ernie Els yet. Now it is a different story of course. It’s all relative. What’s good? I play off a four handicap, although I used to be a scratch golfer. I don’t play enough – about three times a month.

Also you were a provincial rugby player?

I played Craven Week, I never represented at full provincial level. I was a fly-half. Then I got injured and after a long recuperation I played again, but after that I was very nervous and you can’t play rugby if you are, ‘bang gat’.

What did you do before you became a referee?

I was a civil engineer. I sometimes miss the mental challenge, but I have no regrets.

What got you into being a rugby referee?

I was watching a school game and I heckled the ref, like people do on Saturday mornings as a hobby. I mentioned how blind he was, how stupid he was and just how badly he was doing his job. Well the deputy school principle came over and asked me if I could do better. I said anybody could do better. So he invited me to come and tell them where it was going wrong. I thought it was all over until the Monday night I got a phone call to attend a meeting. At that meeting I realised just how much there was to the subject. When they asked me to make my criticism, I apologised and said I didn’t realise how little I knew about it all.

Then what happened?

In a moment of stupidity I said I would like to learn more – how do I get involved? They said join us and I was appointed to ref a game in Leandra. Well I stuffed that game up so badly it became a challenge to learn more about it.

You went from that to referee two Rugby World Cup finals and seven Currie Cup finals. How did you feel just before you went on?

Well when you think about it – a player may get nervous, but he is one of fifteen on the field. The ref is on his own. Nobody can help if I miss a tackle, or drop the ball, so to speak. Also being human, I know I am going to make a mistake at some stage and I have to hope my mistake is not going to change the outcome of the game. So I felt not nervous, but maybe a bit apprehensive and excited.

That’s refreshing; to admit refs make mistakes.

Of course they do – but remember, no-one makes mistakes on purpose.

What do you do about it?

Nothing, you move on. I can’t balance mistakes out by doing something for the other side. Statistics show that most refs are running at 95% hit rate. If your kids got 95% for their exams you would be thrilled. I just have to hope the 5% I get wrong, doesn’t cost anyone the game; get on and blow what I see.

What would the captains on the side, who have been unfairly penalised, say about that?

Nothing really; that seems to be a perception the media has created – that the players complain and fight with the ref. The players are professionals and they respect referees.  The ref doesn’t criticise a player when he knocks-on and the players equally don’t do it to the ref when he makes a mistake. They might think, ‘Ok – that’s his knock on…’ There are some who chirp more than others. I told Kevin Putt he was like a parrot on my back – but I reffed him often and he was fine. Sean Fitzpatrick was unfairly branded; he was called the best, ‘playing’ referee there was. But his job was to talk to the ref and to ensure his team played as the ref required for a game and he was brilliant at that. I suppose people feel when you are as good as he was; they have to bring you down.

Which crowds in your experience are the worst behaved towards referees?

We are by far the worst. We are World Champions in finding excuses and apportioning blame. It’s never the team we love – it’s always the ref. South Africans also complain about the coach, and the management, and so on; but the ref is the immediate target. I’ve always struggled to comprehend that. Rugby is just a sport. It is two teams competing, and ignoring draws for the moment, in every game one team will lose. I use the example of tennis players. When they go out to play they are equals, but one of them will lose. It doesn’t mean he is a bad tennis player. Sometimes the other person is just better on the day.

Maybe like Naas Botha says, it’s because we are not used to losing; but we are good at blaming other people for our team’s bad performance. There are of course some bad refereeing performances – I’m not excusing those. But there seems to be a higher tolerance for players not having a good day, than there is for referees not having a good day.

If you had the chance, what one thing would you educate the public in?

Don’t watch TV and try to decide if a pass is forward or not. Unless the camera is directly in line, it will be a waste of time. Also they must have a look at where the ref is; he usually is directly in line and knows what he is doing.

Rugby is virtually the only game where the referee coaches the players while they are playing; what’s your comment on that?

You call it coaching, but the Australians for example, call it preventative communication. It’s about what the client – the teams, players and crowds, want. They don’t want to see sixty or seventy penalties. They want to be entertained. In the Southern Hemisphere that means the game should flow. It’s a bit different up North, where they love the tussles, the rucks and the mauls – usually in the mud. But to make it flow, the referees have to overlook certain mistakes and the way they do that, is to talk to the guys before they make those mistakes.

Apparently in France there is a tendency in club rugby to lose away games, partly to protect the referee; have you ever felt frightened after a game?

No. I can’t speak for France; but after all the games I have refereed, I have never felt unsafe.

Has anyone tried to bribe you?

Never ever – unless you have any offers? I don’t think it would help in rugby. I mean I can blow for a penalty, but I can’t make sure the kicker gets it over. If a team decide to tap-and-go, there’s even less guarantee they will score. And if the ref put his arm up in one direction the whole game; it would be too obvious. It would have to be a hell-of-a bribe because it would be the ref’s last game.

When you are refereeing, do you keep a penalty count in your head?

I keep some sort of track – but it’s normally only where the same infringement comes up that I keep a count. But for the rest, as I said earlier; I blow it as I see it.

How are referees monitored?

Referees are critiqued every game – they get reports which cover virtually each and every move. In a game they blow the whistle about 85 times and make about another 80 decisions not to blow the whistle. All of those decisions are scrutinised, analysed and marked. Then they are graded.

How much can referees earn?

A top referee will earn close to what top players earn. Put it this way, it would be worth giving up a career in civil engineering to be a referee. Although, for all the trouble they put up with, they deserve three times more than they get.

What do referees do after the big matches?

What do players do? We shower, we change, we… (laughs). No, if there isn’t a formal function we usually go out for a drink or a meal, and quite often bump into the players and mingle with them. We certainly don’t go hide!

What is the most unusual incident that has happened to you while refereeing?

I was refereeing a schools final and there were about 8,000 people watching. At that stage it was the biggest game of my career. Anyway, throughout the game there was a dog running on the field. It kept trying to get into the scrums and was always in the backline when they ran. It was a bit of a hindrance, but I thought despite the dog, I reffed well. As I walked off the field one of the spectators, an old man stuck out his hand and said, ‘Well done – you are the first honest ref I have seen in my life. At least you bring your dog with you when you ref a game…’

Who would you rate as the best player you came across at international level?

John Eales – by far. He was called, ‘Mr Nobody’ by his team-mates; that originated from, ‘Nobody is perfect.’ He was truly the perfect player – captain, lock, kicked at goal, etc, etc. He would be ideal son-in-law material; an absolute gentleman when having a drink with you or on the field in the heat of a game, when the score was 13 – 12, with one minute to play.

Who got up your nose the most?

It’s funny; I have just not found a bad person in rugby at a professional level. People want me to say Martin Johnson, because we had a bit of a hassle at Loftus during the 1997 Lions’ tour; people want me to say Kobus Wiese, because he was an abrasive communicator; people want me to say James Small, but all three of them are welcome to have a braai with me at my house. Fortunately we play rugby and not soccer (laughs).

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