Peter Bills: Rugby referees still fail to get the message

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The Independent Online

Stephen Ferris did the unthinkable at the weekend. He publicly criticised a referee for his performance, inferring that the official in question, South African Marius Jonker, had been deficient in part of his handling of the Ireland v New Zealand game.

The Irish and Lions flanker bemoaned Jonker’s willingness to allow the New Zealanders to kill or at least slow down Irish ball at the breakdown, especially, in the final quarter of the game. Funny thing, that. Midway through the second half in the media box at Lansdowne Road, I wrote a note in my book. It said simply ‘Jonker’s bark is worse than his bite’.

Jonker, you see, had spent much of the game volubly warning players that he wasn’t going to stand for any nonsense. He’d be tough but fair and he wanted both teams to abide by the rules (my words, not his exact ones). Trouble was, he then actually did nothing.

Ferris was spot on – the All Blacks did kill or delay release of the ball from the breakdown. As the Belfast man suggested, there should have been a couple of yellow cards handed out.

Of course, what the Irishman did not mention was that at least one yellow card should also have been waved when Ireland collapsed four scrums in succession near their own line in the second half. How on earth they escaped at least the sanction of a penalty try, defied belief.

But then, this is one of the biggest problems in world rugby. No matter how many lectures IRB refereeing co-ordinator Paddy O’Brien seems to give his troops, too many of them just don’t get the message. Either that or they choose to ignore it.

Jonker was a joke at Lansdowne Road. All talk, no action. Players got away with it because he was too scared to yellow card them and long, long before the end they knew it, especially a group known as the All Blacks who are as wily as a wagon load of monkeys.

Give them an inch and they’ll take the proverbial mile. They treated Jonker with disdain, which was justified given his ineptitude.

All the same, players have got to understand that Ferris’s sort of behaviour will not be tolerated. Freedom of speech might be a fancy phrase for society at large but it certainly doesn’t apply to those in rugby football.

Remember the case of Saracens’ South African coach Brendan Venter just a few weeks ago? Venter was hauled before a rugby court and fined for daring to criticise French referee Christophe Berdos, after he had allowed several Leinster players to seal off ball at the breakdown during the Saracens/Leinster Heineken Cup match.

Presciently, Venter had warned after the game that the international game would be harmed if the IRB did not address the problems at the breakdown. That comment cost him a 25,000 euro fine, albeit 15,000 of it suspended. But the message from ERC was simple. ‘We don’t want straight talking and home truths in our competition’.

On that basis, if there is any consistency whatsoever in the game, Ferris can expect a similar charge in the coming days. But there isn’t any so he won’t be.

This alarming inconsistency and refusal to countenance even a word of criticism of the referee is one of rugby union’s biggest problems. Because the authorities have rushed to protect the officials and hush up their obvious inadequacies and blunders, too many of them are not getting any better. In some cases, they are becoming worse.

In any walk of life, yours or mine, if we muck up but are never reprimanded or reminded about it, how on earth can we improve? This basic truth seems to be beyond the understanding of rugby officials who presumably continue to adhere to the old adage that the referee is always right and to be trusted. Just like all those nice priests in Ireland...............

Rugby needs to get its head out of the sand. Poor referees need to be exposed, not covered up and protected from criticism.