In South Africa there is a perception that when it comes to refereeing decisions, the Springboks are generally hard done by. There certainly is a body of evidence to support that assertion, although rugby’s complex laws and numerous grey areas surrounding law interpretation make it an almost impossible task for match officials to be right all of the time.
This weekend in the semi-finals of Rugby World Cup 2019, in the biggest match the Boks have played in four years, Frenchman Jerome Garces will control the game. He has the potential to become another Poite or Lawrence.
Inevitably, someone had to do it but if the Boks had a choice (and they didn’t), they would’ve opted for someone else.
We’ll get to Garces’ stats in a moment, but it’s worthwhile remembering that coaches and technical analysts spend a great deal of time analysing the referee.
Over time, referees show trends – some are more lenient at the breakdown and like the game to flow, others are like the Vatican Guard at the Papal residence when it comes to the tackle area.
Others are sticklers at scrum time, some can be cajoled, some respond better to charming banter and others don’t like any chitchat at all.
The pool of international referees is relatively small and most coaches and players would’ve been well exposed to the various officials at the sharp end of the game. They know referees’ foibles, their preferences and to use the rugby parlance, “what picture they like to see”.
Match officials all understand the laws of the game but, rugby being a dynamic contact sport with many things happening at high speed in fractions of a second, it’s often the personality of the referee that dictates his view of the match. In other words, the picture he sees shapes his interpretation of the laws. That is what most astute teams try to play on.
Whether or not referees are biased towards one team over another is something only they will know. But what is clear is that some referees tend to suit certain teams more than others. And Garces is not a good fit for the Springboks.
In 14 Tests that Garces has officiated involving South Africa, the Boks have one just four, for a 29% winning ratio. The Springboks’ historical winning ratio in the professional era is 62%. Fourteen matches is a sizeable sample for the number to be so well below the average.
There are many factors at play, including the fact that six of those matches controlled by Garces have been against the dominant All Blacks and nine of them were away or at a neutral venue.
In the professional era the Boks win 53% of matches away from home and under Garces they have won two of nine away Tests (22%). Since 1996 the Boks have won 15 times against the All Blacks in 57 matches for a weak 26% winning ratio. But in the six All Blacks matches controlled by Garces, SA has a 0% winning ratio.
Conspiracy theories will abound. Was world rugby aware of these numbers when they made the decision? Have Garces’ performances been good enough to warrant a semi-final appointment? World Rugby doesn’t publicly discuss its processes to determining how it comes to these decisions.
Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, though, gave the closest utterance to a statement that he wasn’t amused about Garces’ appointment for the Boks’ clash against the All Blacks in Yokohama in their opening game of RWC 2019.
Erasmus said before that 23-13 loss that the All Blacks tended to get preferential treatment from referees. He didn’t name Garces but as he was the elected official for the day, the implication was obvious – he felt Garces tended to be lenient on the All Blacks’ indiscretions.
“There is certainly a time when you (the All Blacks) get that respect and even referees buy into that respect,” Erasmus said. “Because you are playing so well, referees tend to almost find it tough to penalise you in 50-50 decisions.”
Garces controversially sent Damian de Allende off against the All Blacks in Cape Town in 2017. Subsequently a foul play review committee found that De Allende’s late tackle on Lima Sopoaga didn’t warrant a red card.
The incident occurred in the 76th minute and from the ensuing penalty, the Boks lost by a point. It probably didn’t change the outcome as a penalty was the right call, but it did raise questions about Garces’ judgement to award a red card.
After the opening game of this tournament social media was flooded with the many All Black indiscretions Garces missed in Yokohama.
Respected coach Brendan Venter, writing for Stuff.co.nz in New Zealand, was scathing of Garces’ performance.
“As expected, Garces was shocking and is part of the current breed of referees we refer to as an ‘everything goes referee’ and their thinking is that the lower the penalty count, the better the spectacle, but they are wrong,” Venter seethed.
“Before the match, I knew the referee would struggle both ways because of his inability to make strong calls. For us as coaches, the issue with referees is not the mistakes they make, it’s non-refereeing and what they don’t blow.
“It’s when they don’t referee the offside line, don’t police the breakdown, the tackler rolling, counter-rucking from the side and illegal play in the lineout which is an issue.”
World Rugby even criticised the standard of its own officials after the opening weekend – of which Garces was one.
“Following the usual review of matches, the match officials team recognise that performances over the opening weekend of Rugby World Cup 2019 were not consistently of the standards set by World Rugby and themselves,” World Rugby’s statement read.
“Elite match officials are required to make decisions in complex, high-pressure situations and there have been initial challenges with the use of technology and team communication, which have impacted decision-making.”
Yet here we are with Garces as a Rugby World Cup 2019 semi-final appointment. DM
"Without mathematics there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers." ~ Shakuntala Devi