Why refs give the Pumas an uneven break Posted over 11 years ago

It is quite amazing that the IRB still permits referees to conduct tutorials during international rugby matches. The refs jabber on incessantly, telling players to release, roll away, get onside, wash the dishes, pick up the kids from school. But such a stream of communication creates a clear inequity that the IRB seems willfully oblivious to.

English speaking nations have a clear advantage over those countries for whom English is a second or third language. The players of the English speaking nations pick up the instructions instantly and react far more quickly. The players from France, Argentina, Italy and the rest are often a beat behind, and frequently get penalised for not reacting quickly enough.

And I suspect the problem goes even deeper than obvious levels of communication on the field. Many of the top refs have clearly developed “relationships” with certain players over the years. In the Southern Hemisphere they have reffed them on a constant basis in the Super 15 and have spoken with them at many an informal function.

It is human nature to favour these players subconsciously, and it has certainly shown throughout the Rugby Championship. We saw it when Italy came into the Six Nations and now we are seeing it with Argentina. The ‘smaller’, non English-speaking nations are discriminated against.

Argentina would have beaten South Africa in their first home match if referee Steve Walsh had handled the second half equably. But every time the Boks got in the Puma’s half, he pinged the home side for a penalty. Yet when the Pumas had a period of what should have been decisive pressure, Walsh hardly lifted a finger.

The Boks offended on multiple occasions in order to hold their line. They were offside, they made several illegal tackles without the use of the arms, they pulled down rolling mauls. They should have had at least one player in the bin. But Walsh was blind to it all.

Amazingly he was not the worst offender. If I were a member of Argentina’s rugby board, I would have made a formal complaint against Jaco Peyper after his handling of the All Blacks game in Argentina.

He ignored a couple of blatant knock-ons by the Blacks, one of which led indirectly to a try. And he kept pinging Pumas forwards, on their feet, after release, trying to turn over possession. Only Peyper will know why he did not pull up New Zealand for not releasing, but subconsciously he must be aware that New Zealand is a mighty nation when it comes to determining a ref’s professional future.

A strength of Argentina’s game is the driving maul, yet teams keep offending against them with impunity. Against the Blacks about three Argentina forwards appealed in disbelief as Richie McCaw was allowed to come in at the side and disrupt. With an even-handed ref, the scoreline would have remained close until halftime. But with Peyper in charge, Argentina had already been blown away.

Another frequent occurrence in these matches is the tendency of refs to hand a yellow card to the ‘smaller’ team far more readily than they do to the ‘bigger’ nations. Against Australia at the weekend, Argentina were again the victims.

It was just 25 minutes before Patricio Albacete received a yellow card. As it happened two Aussies offended at the breakdown before Albacete. Digby Ioane was holding onto the ball and playing it on the ground and the Aussie tighthead prop rolled in from the side like a barrel in order to knock Albacete away. But off the big Argentinian lock went. The Pumas were already on a warning and Joubert was going to have his pound of flesh.

The Aussies were also warned soon after. But they committed multiple offences in defence of their line at one point of the second half and no yellow card was issued. It was not until the 74th minute, with the match almost over, that Craig Joubert finally decided to act.

I am not sure that refs discriminate knowingly, but it cannot help impartiality when the refs see a selection panel with both a Kiwi and a South African on it, but no Argentine. Surely all first tier nations should be represented (defined by all the qualifiers for the previous World Cup).

Now that we have a Frenchman in charge of the elite referees, hopefully the concept of egalite will be given a bit more credence. It is not good enough for a small group of elite nations to provide and judge all the refs amongst themselves. Until rugby’s referees can approach the universality of soccer’s, we will continue to get unacceptable discrimination against teams like of Argentina.

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Mark Reason has been a sports journalist for over 25 years. He currently works for Fairfax Media and will also be part of the Telegraph's World Cup team and a regular panellist on Radio New Zealand during the World Cup. He has covered every Rugby World Cup since 1991, the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, over 40 golf major championships, the FA Cup final, the Epsom Derby and a lot of other stuff he can't remember. Mark emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 having spent over 20 years covering sport for the Telegraph and Sunday Times in Britain.

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