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Ref Watch: Springboks waterboy incident further threatens traditional rugby values

By Paul Smith
(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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What do last weekend’s Gallagher Premiership refereeing debutant Sara Cox and a South African waterboy have in common?


On the face of it not much, but incidents involving the pair have in seven days reminded us about rugby union’s traditional values and the extent to which they are now threatened.

After she had won plaudits from all present at the Stoop last Saturday, Worcester Warriors and Harlequins presented the 31-year-old Devon-based official with signed jerseys to commemorate her history-making moment as English rugby’s first top flight female referee.

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Ian Foster and Ardie Savea react to New Zealand’s defeat
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Ian Foster and Ardie Savea react to New Zealand’s defeat

And rugby union’s traditional values – with respect for opponents and officials prominent – came across loud and clear in a post-match anecdote Cox shared with BBC 5 Live.

“I had a couple of players correct themselves,” she said.

“They said sir, then: ‘oh, hang on…ref.’

“It doesn’t bother me. I’m still happy for someone to open a line of communication with a respectful word at the start; it’s not about gender for me.”


Seven days and 10,000 miles separated this from another English official, Matthew Carley, being forced to stop an enthralling contest between New Zealand and South Africa to threaten the Springboks’ water-carrier with a red card as a result of his conduct towards the team of match officials.

Jacques Nienaber’s man-on-the-touchline had raced after the touch judge to challenge the award of a lineout to New Zealand after the Springboks had found touch inside the All Blacks 22 with a bouncing kick that originated inside the South African half.

Referee Carley took the waterboy aside and warned he would see red if he continued to harangue the assistant.
“If I see you chasing our touch judge up the line again, you’ll be off,” he warned.


Nienaber later explained that his touchline assistant was acting under orders conveyed from the coaching box, but in many ways this ‘mea culpa’ raises more questions than it answers.

In asking us to gloss over the episode as a mis-understanding on his part and excuse the waterboy’s conduct on the basis that he was simply doing what he was told, South Africa’s head coach is also telling us that chasing the touch judge to rant at him would have been acceptable had Carley’s decision been incorrect.

He is also asking us to believe that an international team’s backroom team pays so little attention to law that it is unaware that 50:22 only applies when the phase in which the kick takes place begins in the kicking team’s half.

In case anyone has forgotten, this is the same team whose minute attention to officiating detail enabled them to put together 63-minutes of video analysis finding fault with the performance of Australia whistler Nic Berry after they lost the first test against the British & Irish Lions.

For those who have taken to social media to query the validity of Carley’s threat, the match officials are in charge of everything that happens inside the playing enclosure. This is defined as the fenced off area which surrounds the pitch – advertising boards in the case of a stadium and a rail or rope at junior level.

The referee is therefore entirely within his rights to ask anyone within the playing enclosure to leave it and sit in the stands. This would then be reported and sanctioned as a red card offence.

In the event that the individual refuses to leave the match is abandoned with the incident then being treated by the governing body as a mass sending off.

De Allende Deliberate Knock-On

While discussing points of law from a brilliant test match, the commentators sparked widespread debate with their criticism of Carley’s award of a late penalty against Damian de Allende for a deliberate knock-down.

Had the Springbok centre held on to his interception attempt he would have been away for a match-clinching try, so those questioning why he would have ‘deliberately’ knocked the ball to ground when such a huge prize awaited can be understood.

And any search of the laws for an instruction to penalise all unsuccessful one-handed interception attempts will be fruitless, since this ruling is a handed-down guideline which has been applied for some years in an attempt to bring consistency.

The applicable line of logic is that a player is less likely to catch the ball with one hand than two, and knowing that a penalty will follow a one-handed knock-on, will therefore balance risk and reward before attempting an interception.

Whether this remains valid is a debatable point – but that is the guideline under which Carley and everyone else with a whistle operates.

There is also a commonly-held misconception that every deliberate knock-on should result in a yellow card. In fact, like almost every other law, the referee looks at context before applying a sanction and unless the offence is committed in deep defence or as part of a sequence of infringements a penalty is often enough.

Back where we started

When I began refereeing in the amateur days of the early 1990’s the law book described the referee as ‘the sole judge of fact and law.’

The professionalisation of rugby union has since then accelerated change in every area – including officiating and the analysis and criticism of it.

Is it therefore reasonable to criticise the performance of match officials in the modern professional game in a manner which would have been total anathema 30 years ago?

Receiving valid criticism and learning from it while filtering out uninformed or abusive opinion has always been part and parcel of being a referee – or player. It goes with the territory.

If the officials (and players) are paid to be there and to perform to the highest achievable standards it is in my opinion entirely reasonable for fans, coaches and pundits to look at their performance, evaluate it and express this publicly.

But…and it’s a big one…this needs to be done in a considered way with the feedback being given in a similarly unemotional manner. Give praise when it is deserved and criticise when appropriate – and engage the brain before opening the mouth or taking to Twitter.

Before anyone accuses me of being anti-South African, I should say that plenty of coaches and fans at all levels across the whole world are guilty of letting their emotions and one-eyed view of the game get the better of them.

In fact, even after 900 or so games as a match official, the memory of being called ‘Mr Ref’ by South African teams still brings a smile to my face. I have certainly never experienced any lack of onfield respect from that part of the world – in fact the exact reverse if anything.

As the response to Sara Cox showed us rugby union still has plenty to be proud of – we now all need to make sure it stays that way.


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