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Are refs inviolable?

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In the wake of the raucous chorus of indignation it may be a good idea to try to clear up some wild misconceptions in the hope that they could calm some of the storm.

There is a massive outcry in South Africa over one refereeing error - an error which has had public acknowledgement from the IRB and Romain Poite himself. It was a mistake, a miserable mistake but to go from there to outrage and all sorts of conspiracy theories does nobody any good and is certainly not good for the game of rugby football. It seems that some are already condemning Jérôme Garcès who is to referee the match between South Africa and Australia at the end of the month just because he is also a Frenchman.

The topic we really want to talk about is the accountability of referees but first we do just something on Poite.

Romain Poite, voted the top referee in France in the last two years, turned 38 on the day of that fateful match between New Zealand and South Africa. He is one of four full-time referees in France - along with Jérôme Garcès, Mathieu Raynal and Eric Gauzère. He has refereed at the last two World Cups - in 2007 and 2011. It is interesting that the South African management at the 2011 World Cup had decided that, if they reached the Final, they would ask for Poite to be appointed to the match. South Africa vs Scotland. He has refereed Six Nations matches. This year he refereed the third Test between Australia and the B&I Lions, the deciding Test of the series, a huge occasion. Earlier this year he refereed the match between South Africa and Scotland.

Clearly the IRB viewed him as a tried and tested referee with competence and big match temperament, and so they in good faith appointed him to the match between New Zealand and South Africa.

Nowhere in all of that was there lurking the villain some people think he is. The man is probably now suffering from unhappy selfreproach for his evident error.

There have been cries for the IRB to take disciplinary steps against him. Rugby does not work that way. A disciplinary hearing is for foul play on the field or misconduct off the field. Poite made a mistake. Poite was not guilty of assault or misconduct off the field. He would not be subject to a disciplinary inquiry, any more than players would be for making mistakes on the field. Bryan Habana will not be subject to a disciplinary hearing for that kick that led to a try, nor will Jannie du Plessis for missing tackles and conceding penalties nor will Zane Kirchner for mistakes he made, nor will.....................

But Steve Walsh, during his career, was called to account for misconduct when not refereeing or guilty of foul play. He was sanctioned for his conduct. That hearing and sanctioning was made public - as happens with a player.

Then there is the commonly expressed accusation that referees are not held accountable.

Top referees are subject to intense scrutiny. They have people reviewing their performance in every match. The assessors, specifically trained for the job, discuss the match with referees. The assessor/performance reviewer sends his report to the IRB's manager of referees with a copy to the IRB. The reports are detailed and thorough. The referee gives a self-appraisal to his management. The managements of the teams involved also send in reports to the IRB's referee manager with copies to the IRB itself. The referee is required to react to the assessor's report and to the reports of the two teams.

All this scrutiny - far greater than a player endures - forms the basis of the referee's appointments and indeed of where he is graded.

The suggestion that no action is taken against referees is not true. Like players, referees are withdrawn from panels (squads) and not appointed, as players are not picked. When a player is dropped or not picked it is extremely rare that his coach announces it or gives detailed reasons. But people interested in the team will know that the player has been dropped and suspect something like loss of form.

The same is true of referees. When a referee is dropped from a panel or not appointed to a match there is usually no announcement. But people who are interested in referees will know that something has happened - for example if his name is no longer on a panel or he is not appointed or appointed to less important matches.

If you were interested in refereeing over the last few years, you would probably work out that referees have been subject to action against them for their form. These could well include Wayne Barnes (England), Christophe Berdos (France), Lyndon Bray (New Zealand), Tappe Henning (South Africa), Marius Jonker (South Africa), Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand), Mark Lawrence (South Africa), Alan Lewis (Ireland), Dave Pearson (England), Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Tony Spreadbury (England) and Steve Walsh (Australia).

These actions are not always permanent, as with players. Regain form and you are back - as Barnes, Henning, Mark Lawrence, Chris Pollock, Tony Spreadbury and Steve Walsh did.

Those are some top referees we have spoken of. In each country there are also assessments made that lead to grading and a appointments. If one looks at refereeing consistently in national or local societies, you would be aware of similar actions taking place throughout the season.

Referees are in fact accountable. They are a part of the game and treated as a part of the game. advert