The authorities who select referees for matches at the Rugby World Cup do not seem to think very deeply about the choices they make. This is, perhaps, what resulted in the French referee Jerome Garces being put in charge of the game between New Zealand and South Africa on 21 September.
Some background is necessary to understand why GarcÃ¨s’ appointment was questionable. He had officiated in the game between Australia and New Zealand earlier this year and handed out a red card to Kiwi lock Scott Barrett for a charge on Australian skipper Michael Hooper. This was a decision that was questioned in many quarters; that Scott Barrett deserved a yellow card was not in question, but a red card was deemed to be a gross over-reaction.
Scott Barrett was banned for two matches after that and was making his return in Saturday’s game. Thus there were a fair few people observing how GarcÃ¨s would officiate, especially when it came to Scott Barrett.
An additional factor that made GarcÃ¨s unsuitable for this game is the regular claim about referees going easy on New Zealand because of their influence in world rugby; apart from those who come to watch a game because they are fans of this team or that, there is huge contingent of people who come to watch the All Blacks because they have some sort of mystique around them.
This claim is made by officials of teams which have been getting hammered by the Kiwis for years so one can put it down to that variety of fruit which is common these days: sour grapes. The fact is that all teams take advantage of the rules to the extent possible.
Garces, thus, had to avoid being seen as going easy on New Zealand. And he made some very elementary errors.
The most glaring mistake he made was when he failed to send off South Africa winger Makazole Mapimpi for not releasing the New Zealand standoff Richie Mo’unga, after the latter had booted a ball downfield, collected it five metres from the goalline and, though somewhat off-balance, was set to stumble over the line and score. Mapimpi tacked him but did not release Mo’unga as per the rules as there were no other South African players around to lend support.
Given that South Africa indulges in cynical tactics like this quite often — who can forget the professional fouls committed by the like of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana in years gone by? — a hardline referee may well have awarded the All Blacks a penalty try.
But Garces did not go beyond a regulation penalty. He earned bitter criticism from the New Zealand captain Kieran Read who described him as “gutless” right there on the field.
Garces also overlooked a number of neck rolls by South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit on the All Blacks flanker Ardi Savea. Springboks giant lock Eben Etzebeth also grabbed the neck of a Kiwi player here and there but Garces had no eyes for these tactics. All this in a year when there have been repeated reports that rugby referees have been ordered to crack down on tackles that come anywhere near the head.
The French official also missed a number of questionable tackles by the New Zealand players. He was put in a tricky situation by whoever selected him to officiate in the game and came out smelling of anything but roses.
But then Garces was not responsible for the most shocking refereeing decision of the opening weekend of the tournament. This honour was claimed by British referee Rowan Kitt who was officiating as the television match official in the game between Australia and Fiji.
Kitt had nothing to offer on a tackle that Australian winger Reece Hodge effected on Fiji’s Peceli Yato, the team’s best player up to that point of the game, blocking the flanker with a shoulder-led, no-arms challenge to the head that resulted in Yato having to leave the field with concussion. He played no further part in the game.
On-field official Ben O’Keeffe missed the tackle too, but he was somewhat unsighted as the tackle took place close to the sideline. Former referee Jonathan Kaplan was scathing in his criticism of Kitt.
“On this occasion Kitt ruled that the challenge was legal and I find that extremely surprising,” said the 70-Test referee, a highly respected official during his day, in a column for the UK’s Daily Telegraph. “To let it pass without any sanction whatsoever was clearly the wrong call.”
He added: “Going into this tournament World Rugby have been very clear about contact with the head and what constitutes a red card under their new High Tackle Sanction framework.
“With that in mind I have absolutely no idea why Reece Hodge was not sent off for his tackle on Fiji’s Peceli Yato. To me it was completely clear and an almost textbook example of the type of challenge they are trying to outlaw.”
Exactly what it will take for referees to rule equally on all infringements remains to be seen. Perhaps someone needs to die on the field in real-time before rugby officials sit up and take notice.