Honesty the best policy?
Amid all the Bledisloe Cup banter and cross-Tasman taunting that punctuated the build-up to last weekend’s clash between New Zealand and Australia, one unexpected voice echoed loud and clear – that of referee Nigel Owens.
It was incredibly interesting that the referee for such a high-profile game would choose – or even be allowed – to enter into the media mayhem ahead of the contest, even someone as assured and engaging as Owens, but not nearly as fascinating as what he had to say.
In a wide-ranging interview on The Paul Henry Show, an Auckland-based talk show, Owens offered an honest insight into the art of whistle-blowing and the sport itself.
“It’s impossible to referee a rugby match, especially of Test match intensity, without making a mistake,” admitted the Welshman. “You just hope the mistake you make is going to get lost in the game.”
His comment was lost in the aftermath of an interview that also covered his battle with depression, an attempted suicide and his decision to come out as gay but were just as compelling.
This was arguably the world’s best and most respected referee with over 50 Tests to his name admitting, on the eve of a Rugby World Cup where he is hotly-tipped to take charge of the final should Wales fail to make it to the title decider, that mistakes are unavoidable and could influence the result.
“Every game you referee is on television,” he continued. “Everyone watches your decisions, is able to slow it down and watch it five or six times and then decide what it should be, whereas you’ve got to make that decision just like that."
“It’s a bit like the players, they may make a mistake but they hope that is does not influence the end of the game.” But Owens was not the only one admitting to shortcomings last week.
New Zealander Glen Jackson has rocketed up the refereeing ranks in the last five years since calling time on a playing career that included spells with Bay of Plenty and the Chiefs in New Zealand before a successful stint with Saracens in the English Premiership.
He has blazed a trail that we can only hope more players follow and following his Rugby Championship and Six Nations bow, this past weekend in Buenos Aires he became what is thought to be the first person to both play and referee a +century of first-class games.
On entering the record books, the 39-year-old Jackson gave an interview in which he shared his approach refereeing.
“You could blow your whistle any time you want,” he told allblacks.com. “Every ruck there is something going on, it’s more about understanding what the game needs and when it is important to step up."
“You’ve just got to realise that you’re never going to be 100 per cent right in any game. It’s just about understanding the times that you are wrong that you’ve got to go through it, and it’s a massive talking point. You’ve got to understand that. That’s the big art of refereeing.”
Again, here is one of the leading lights of refereeing, someone fast-tracked by World Rugby, revealing he is selective about what offences he penalises depending on what the contest requires.
The comments are perhaps not revelatory to anyone familiar with the modern game.
At the elite level, rugby union is played at such a blistering speed that it is clear that mistakes will not only be made but incidents will be missed completely by the referee – even with the support of two assistants and Television Match Official.
What is surprising is that two leading referees would go on record with such comments and World Rugby match official manager Joel Jutge may well be in touch to ask why they chose to highlight shortcomings in the way games are handled on the eve of a tournament that doubles as the greatest possible advert for the sport.
It could of course be an orchestrated move on the part of World Rugby to help explain and educate the casual fans that are sure to tune in for the tournament but you some how doubt it.
The frustration at a decision felt by any supporters is nothing to that endured by players and coaches who must accept incorrect decisions will not only go against them but go unnoticed.
The key question is how do you accommodate such an expectancy into your coaching plan and if a player, into your game plan?
It certainly underlines the need for exemplary anger management on the part of the player and game management, or referee management, on the part of your captain – will berating or constantly questioning an official for perceived injustice reap rewards?
Violent penalty count swings from on half to another have been evident in the past but there is no suggestion that referees would try to redress the balance unless it was justified – two wrongs do not make a right.
The best approach is to urge your players to live in the present while fostering a working relationship with the referee, to resist the urge to dwell on decisions that did not go their way and leave it to the coach to raise concerns post-game in an effort to guarantee consistency.
Many have called for referees to front up to the cameras after games to explain their reasoning behind key decisions thinking it would improve performance.
Perhaps the honest approach from two leading officials is a step towards that becoming part of the matchday experience – but given the ambiguity of certain elements of the game, World Rugby may see that as gamble with limited reward.
Such a scenario would always centre on the negative which in turn would tarnish the sport and may even jeopardise the respect shown to the referee which has always been one of rugby union’s trump cards and the envy of many other sports.
A better solution may be to accept officials will make mistakes, give them the technology that will help make their job easier and celebrate the human element offered by the likes of Owen whose approach to refereeing demands praise not criticism.