Peter Bills: Lions tour refs are second rate

It's the dream scenario.

You sign up Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras as top of the bill performers for a concert that you've waited 12 years to stage.

The eyes of the watching world will be upon your event. From Australia to the West coast of North America and from Italy to Ireland, devotees of their talents will eagerly anticipate the occasion.

So then what do you do to shatter the whole image of quality, truly of crème de la crème? You sign up a fourth rate conductor, no-one much has heard of and even fewer admire, to conduct the maestros. Absolutely barmy an idea, isn't it ? Could never happen, surely….

Well, in the funny old world of ‘professional' rugby union, it can and it does. In fact, we're about to see it on the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa.

Beyond much argument, the three best referees in the world are Mark Lawrence and Jonathan Kaplan of South Africa plus Alain Rolland of Ireland. Perhaps in that order, too. They are smart, switched on, in control, calm and assured. Everything you want to see, in fact, in a top class official.

The good news is that all three will referee matches on the Lions tour. Lawrence will take charge of the June 13 match between Western Province and the Lions, Kaplan officiating at the tourists' match against the Sharks three days earlier. Rolland will do the game between the Emerging Springboks and the Lions at Newlands, Cape Town.

Alas, the bad news is that the closest they will be to the action when it really counts, in the three Test matches, will be on a seat somewhere in the grandstands at ABSA Stadium Durban, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria and Coca Cola Park, Johannesburg.

Some of the best players in the world from South Africa and the countries of the British Isles and Ireland will be refereed in the crucial Tests by second rate officials.

A suggestion was made that this time, for this tour, the world's best officials should be chosen. The idea was that the top South African, Lawrence or Kaplan, would do one Test, the top British or Irish official, undeniably Rolland, would do another and the 3rd Test would be handled by a neutral official.

Now, we have to acknowledge that the Lions history in the southern hemisphere countries used to be littered with tales of one-eyed referees favouring the home sides. In 1959, in the 1st Test in Dunedin, the Lions out-scored the All Blacks by four tries to nil yet still lost, because a local referee managed to give Don Clarke and the All Blacks six penalties to get them home 18-17.

But that was half a century ago. Is anyone seriously suggesting that if Alain Rolland refereed a South Africa v Lions Test, he'd make sure the Lions won basically by cheating? The idea is risible, and the same applies to Lawrence and Kaplan. These are highly professional officials who have proved themselves the world's best. You don't get to that peak in your career in any field if, deep down, you are a fraud.

I understand that the South Africans proposed this scenario. But the Lions turned it down flat. What we are left with defies belief.

Because rugby union is short of real world class referees at this time, three second rate officials will take charge of the Test matches. New Zealander Bryce Lawrence, who allowed all kinds of mayhem in a recent Super 14 game including collapsed scrums and offside without any sanctions, will handle the 1st Test in Durban.

Frenchman Christophe Berdos, much inferior to his fellow Gallic whistler Joel Juge who, alas, is still injured, will referee the Pretoria Test match and Australian Stuart Dickinson, a man prone to alarming errors and inconsistency, will take charge of the 3rd Test in Johannesburg.

I do not for a moment suggest that Messrs Lawrence, Berdos and Dickinson are anything other than scrupulously honest. But in the opinion of most observers, none of them are in the top five referees in the world.

So we can anticipate a scenario of some of the world's best players and some of the most loyal supporters of this game anywhere on the globe all being in South Africa for this long-awaited Test series. Unfortunately, none of them will see the world's best referees in action when it really matters, on the Test match stage.

It is utterly and completely nonsensical and if the Lions lose through poor judgement or blatant mistakes by the match officials, they will have no-one to blame but their own management.


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