Referee Kaplan holding no grudges

By Peter Bills
Thursday 12 March 2009 16:08

He's refereed 868 matches in a 25 year career and on Saturday, South African official Jonathan Kaplan will make rugby history. His appointment as match referee for the Scotland v Ireland 6 Nations match at Murrayfield will be his 50th Test, a world record. At 42, Kaplan is one of the best referees in the world.

So it's a glamorous job this refereeing business. Flying around the world business class, staying at 5 star hotels, free meals, private cars. The proverbial piece of cake?

Er, Kaplan might beg to differ. For sure, he loves refereeing as much now as when he did his first ever game, Wits v Kempton Park 4ths, a Johannesburg club game back in 1984. But the lap of luxury?

"A few years back, I worked out that in a single calendar year, I spent 213 nights away from home. And in that year, I took 133 separate flights, more than one for every three days. That was a bit brutal."

Kaplan is close to the best in the business for two reasons. All his career, he has been meticulous in pursuing the highest standards. He is his own harshest critic and he's prepared to put his hand up when he's wrong and admit it. But he has also had an intrinsic belief in his ability to reach the top.

He is an official who exudes calm on the field. He dislikes being dogmatic and lecturing players; he prefers to take them as mature men, unless they wish to prove otherwise. Once, whilst refereeing an Australia-New Zealand game, he stopped the game to talk to All Black first five eight Carlos Spencer, who had twice been palpably offside. A penalty to Australia was imminent.

Australian captain George Gregan shouted at him 'Yellow card ref, yellow card'. He told Gregan he had the situation under control. Gregan did it again and then a third time. Instantly, Kaplan reversed the decision and penalised Gregan. It became a simple three points from a penalty for the All Blacks…..

At the next line-out, Gregan muttered in Kaplan's ear 'OK Jonathan, I am calm and rational now.'

In other words, he will crack down where necessary, as England discovered to their cost against Wales in Cardiff recently. England attack coach Brian Smith attacked Kaplan afterwards, but later called the South African privately and apologised. Kaplan doesn't hold grudges.

His creed is simple and revolves around three words: flair, judgement and nerve. "Flair means the ability to add colour. It's like the management side of things; the ability to add colour within the frame of the laws.

"Judgement is about black and white issues, the ability to see right from wrong. And nerve because if you don't have the ability to hold your nerve in pressure situations when people are looking at you, you won't succeed. You need to show strength and demonstrate strong nerve in your demeanor."

Kaplan is no-one's fool. He holds two degrees – Bachelor of Social Science majoring in economy and psychology plus Post Graduate in Marketing Management. He cheerfully admits he's a perfectionist and dreams of the day when he might have the perfect game. Alas, he understands that isn't possible with human beings.

"I remember bad decisions I have made. I'd love to be able to rewind a match tape knowing I got everything right, rather than seeing the human errors I made. I don't like upsetting people: I want to be as good in my refereeing as I possibly can be.

"I see the referee's role as contributing to other people's Saturday afternoon. I enjoy managing a game but there is no greater reward than making people happy. It might sound 'Good Samaritan' stuff but it has been a life philosophy of mine. By contributing to someone else's happiness, inadvertently you become happy."

Kaplan lives in Cape Town in an apartment with a sweeping view of the city and harbour. He took up refereeing very young, at 17, because he found himself too small to handle the immense physicality of the game in South Africa. He broke his nose when he was young and struggled to adapt. His mother suggested he try refereeing and he did for a couple of weeks. He still remembers his first game.

"There were these old grumpy men who were long since past their peak. Beside them, I must have looked about 12 years of age. I didn't know where to stand, where to go or what to do, really. I was a bit of a headless chicken. But those guys helped me through the game and I enjoyed it."

Referees serve a long apprenticeship. Kaplan took seven years to get to first team level and nine years before he was appointed to South Africa's international panel. He always believed he had the ability to do the job but wanted more than that; he aspired to be the best. That is his way; he was driven towards the top by ambition, a desire to achieve and contribute. "It is impossible to have been involved for so long without being passionate about it" he says.

"And I hope to carry on refereeing after my Test days are over because I just enjoy what I do. It doesn't matter what game I am involved in, I enjoy contributing."

And travelling? Well, some journeys can test anyone's commitment. The day after he'd taken charge of England's 31-28 win over New Zealand at Twickenham in 2002, he flew back to Cape Town. He'd barely been home for a few hours when a referee official called. 'Could he do another match the following Saturday'?

'Sure' he replied, where is it?

'Well, it's Russia v Spain, a World Cup qualifier, in Krasnodar' was the reply. Kaplan gulped.

A visa hastily arranged, he flew back to London, joined his touch judges and flew 5 hours to Moscow. They stayed overnight there, endured nightmares of bureaucracy at immigration and flew 2 hours down to the Black Sea resort the next day, on a plane where people were smoking and using their cell phones. When he checked into his hotel, he found the fourth floor contained a bar filled with ladies of the night. Many of the rugby men were imbibing liberally.

When he refereed the game, Kaplan was mystified to find three Afrikaans speaking players in the Russian team with names like Hendriks, Stofberg and Peterse. "That was as bizarre as the whole trip" he smiles. The IRB thought so too – they banned the Russians afterwards for choosing non-eligible players.

Kaplan's memory of his games and experiences is near photographic. He fondly recalls his awe at some of the "massive hits" in a Tonga v Fiji game in the Pacific islands one year and the pre-match war dances. "They sent cold shivers up my neck on a warm day" he smiles.

But the physicality off the field became comradeship off it, as the two teams shared the evening, singing songs and eating together. Correctly, Kaplan identifies those as the special moments of the sport.

Lean and fit (he trains anything between three to five times a week), he could probably go on for another six years at least. But he won't. "2011 is a good target for me, I don't think much beyond that. I have worked very hard to be where I am but I'll know when to go. You get to the point where you just know."

But before that, there is Saturday's historic 50th appearance. "I will be proud to take charge of that game, but it's best to remember the game isn't about me. No game is about a referee. But when it's over, I'm sure I'll look back and quietly reflect with some pride."

He's handled Ireland 11 times, Scotland six but never a game between the two countries. "I have got on well with Ireland's coaching staff over the years. And that relationship has been transferred to what happens on the field. It's the same with the Scots.

"Players understand what I want; they 'get' me and I 'get' them. It should work that way. I always found Eddie O'Sullivan a very decent man, a good guy to talk to and very compliant in terms of his attitude to referees."

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