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Who’s judging the judges?

While a previous blog dealt with the issue of the judiciary, this one should not be seen in tandem. And let me also clarify that this is a question, not an attack on anybody or any institution. I am just crazy about sport and do not like to see the image of the game (any game) tarnished by ugly scenes.

Of course, I am speaking about sport in general. But I would like to use an example this weekend’s unfortunate incident when the Stormers were playing against the Sharks.

During the match, touch judge Willie Roos drew the attention of referee Kelvin Deaker to an off-camera incident. Apparently Stormers prop forward Brian Mujati had been involved in an altercation with Sharks lock Johann Muller, and Schalk Burger had just pulled Muller off Mujati.

Roos did not point this out to Deaker, maybe because he only saw the tail-end of the altercation. Instead, he made a case of foul play/fighting, for which Deaker decided to give Burger a yellow card. Burger than made a sign towards Roos, pointing at his eyes and shouted something in his direction.

Commentators believe that Burger was implying that Roos should get glasses, or that something was wrong with Roos’s eyes. SA Rugby’s disciplinary committee is sitting today to investigate the incident.

Rules of all national rugby formations and the International Rugby Board state very clearly that the referee has the last say, and any objection should be directed through official channels. Problem is, no official channels would right the wrong being done by a referee. We have seen referees apologising for a specific incident, but that did nothing to help the affected side or player.

Say, for instance, Victor Matfield was involved in an incident with another player and Bryan Habana came to his aid. The touch judge saw Habana pulling someone off Matfield and detaining that player. The touch judge would then draw the attention of the referee to this incident. The referee would then make a decision, based either on what he (the referee) saw or on the word of the touch judge.

Let’s take the hypothesis further, and say Habana was being red-carded for foul play/fighting. Even if the touch judge and/or referee afterwards apologised, it would not mean that Habana’s resulting suspension from the game would be lifted.

The rules are such that referees are untouchable. They can do or say anything they want, and nobody can do anything. And it is not only the case in rugby. This happens in every sport where an “independent” adjudicator is involved.

Even beyond Saturday’s incident, everyone knows that Burger’s rugby is unprecedented and unconventional. He plays very tough rugby. But is this always foul play? By his own admission, he wants to tackle someone so that the opponent does not get up from it. This means that for that specific part of the play, he likes to take his opponents out. You’d get up from the tackle, but just not for that part of the game. If he tackles you during the second phase, he’d like you to get back in the game only by the third, fourth or even fifth phase. Now that’s rugby to me!

Referees have on countless occasions deemed his play to be dangerous, and it was not the first time he was yellow-carded. However, even the most patient person has a tolerance threshold. And I think Burger just reached his on Saturday. Even Muller admitted that Burger didn’t actually do anything wrong. Muller stated to Sport24 that “Mujati and I were involved and Schalk came in from the side. I feel he was unfortunate that the touch judge saw it. Schalk did nothing to hurt me. The law says he acted wrongly, but there was nothing in the incident.”

We now have a TV judge in rugby. But this person is only there should the referee be unsure about a certain play — normally if he couldn’t see whether the ball was properly placed for a try. He would then refer play to the TV judge to decide whether a try should be awarded. But the TV judge does not have the power to overrule the referee’s decision.

I think Burger was wrong in what he did after he was sent off. What he did actually amounts to verbally abusing Willie Roos. If he is going to be suspended for six to 18 weeks (as required by the rules), it would be justified.

But I also have to say that somewhere, somehow, we need to start questioning the wisdom of absolute power by a referee or umpire. I don’t know how, but the powers that be need to look at a system whereby decisions of adjudicators can be legitimately challenged.