SANZAAR finally hit the bulls-eye with their disciplinary process, but then wrecked that good work by sending a dart into the floor.
Context-based officiating has plagued rugby’s disciplinary process for decades. When a big bloke tumbles a wee fella with a tackle that’s above the waist, the ref clenches his whistle and the AR hisses “looked high to me” into his mic. But when the roles are reversed, the attitude seems to be “ag man, the big oke can take it”.
How the jumper lands should have no impact on the sanction against a player who has clattered into his counterpart under a high ball. Aside from the fact that this approach actively incentivises simulation (you know, the attribute of soccer that we all wish was in rugby), it attempts to turn the referee into a biokineticist-slash-psychologist.
As if having to judge the imaginary lines on the field, and the direction of the passer’s hands 1000 times in 36 minutes of play wasn’t enough, let’s also have the bloke with his shorts pulled up high decide whether the fullback landed on his humerus or his scapular…
And that’s why I was initially extremely chuffed when Akker van der Merwe and Schalk Brits were both red-carded for a punch-up at Kings Park on Saturday. For once, the ref wasn’t taking into account each player’s star sign or favourite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. He saw punches; he flashed red. Good.
And then the disciplinary process backed up this objective decision by suspending Van der Merwe for three weeks and Brits for four, influenced by previous ‘striking offences’.
Those sanctions are brilliant. Two players got punchy, they were red-carded, and the one who is a repeat offender got the heavier sentence. Except that the whole review process somehow missed the act of dangerous, foul play that sparked the incident.
It was obvious to everybody not on the SANZAAR payroll that the bell sounded for Round One after the Sharks hooker led with his head in cleaning out Brits.
Despite working hard since his return to SA to earn his Nice Guy badge, Brits instinctively lashed out and then couldn’t smile his way out of a rumble with the Angry Warthog.
Mike Fraser, his assistants and the TMO poured over the slow motion footage. None of them saw Van der Merwe lead with his head. “Blue 2 started it,” said the Kiwi ref.
The citing commissioner and the assistant citing commissioner also missed the transgression live and on the big screen.
“For us, we couldn’t bring the perceived headbutt into account, or rule on who may have instigated the matter,” Stefan Terblanche, a member of the SANZAAR foul play committee that reviewed the footage, told SA Rugby Magazine. “I can see why people see it the way they do, but sometimes they don’t understand the intricacies of the rules that we are bound by.”
“Akker van der Merwe headbutts him,” commentator Joel Stransky said when presented with the first action replay after the incident on Saturday. Four match officials and two citing commissioners didn’t see it in multiple replays on the day.