The Rugby World Cup 2015 kicks off in a few days time and the Springboks start their campaign with the familiar weight of hope, controversy and expectation placed on their shoulders. The players can control nearly all aspects of their fate in the coming weeks but one thing that is beyond their control is the performance of the referee on the day.
Let’s take a look at the four referees who will be blowing the Pool Games that the Boks are involved in.
Game 1: RSA vs Japan on 19 September
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
Garces is a 41-year old French referee who made his first full international appearance in 2010, after refereeing the 2009 Junior World Championship in Japan. His debut was between England and Barbarians in the 2010 mid-year tests. He has a reputation for being one of the fittest referees in the game, which is a strong endorsement in his favour. However, he came in for a lot of criticism in November 2014 after referring the game between the Springboks and Italy, especially when it came down to breakdowns. But Jonathan Kaplan was quick to come to his defense, arguing that he did a good job. ‘He refereed with a great deal of empathy, allowing both teams to play,’ said Kaplan. ‘It wasn’t the greatest game, but that is not his fault.’
The Springboks are likely to win fairly easily against the Japanese, so the performance of Garces shouldn’t have too big an impact on the outcome of the game.
Barnes was selected onto the Panel of National Referees in 2001 at the age of 21, becoming the youngest referee to ever be awarded that honour. He turned pro in 2005 and refereed his first test in 2006. His reputation took a knock in at the RWC in 2007 when hosts France knocked out the All Blacks in the quarter-final stage. During the game, Barnes sin-binned Luke McAlister, and then missed a forward pass which subsequently led to the match-winning try for the French. Since the, and despite his wealth of experience at the very top of the game, he’s become the ref that the Kiwis love to hate. But Bok fans have taken a shine to him, particularly after his decision during the last Tri-Nations clash between the Springboks and the All Blacks led to a penalty conversion for Pat Lambie in the dying moments of the game that secured a famous Bok victory.
Samoa are a totally different proposition to the Japanese and the ref is likely to play a far more crucial role. However, all indications still point to a Springbok victory.
Game 3: RSA vs Scotland on 3 October
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Owens is an international and Heineken Cup referee and was the only Welsh referee at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, as well as the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Again he be the sole Welsh referee at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
In September 2014, Owens received some luminous praise from former ref Jonathan Kaplan following his performance at Newlands during the test between the Boks and Wallabies. Kaplan explained that “the poise, communication skills and general game management of Nigel Owens is the best in the world and with our own Craig Joubert is streaks ahead of the rest …. He is an example for the upcoming referees with many attributes of pure quality in this most demanding of arenas.”
Incidentally, in May 2007, Owens became the first professional referee to come out as gay. “It’s such a big taboo to be gay in my line of work,” he explained, “‘I had to think very hard about it because I didn’t want to jeopardise my career.” But the admission has done nothing to harm his career and Owens was named ‘Gay Sports Personality of the Year” in 2008 by the gay rights group Stonewall.
For South Africa’s most serious challenge in the pool stages, it’s a great relief to have a ref of this calibre in control.
Game 4: RSA vs USA on 7 October
Referee: Pascal Gauzere
The second French referee that the Boks will encounter during the group phase of the World Cup and one who’s reputation has taken a hammering in recent months. He has been refereeing at the highest level for almost 10 years, but during September 2014, while in charge of the New Zealand vs Argentina test, Gauzere lost a lot of the credibility he had built up. ESPN.co.uk described the game as “revolving around refereeing mistake after mistake”, and went on to say that “if the Rugby Championship seriously wants to describe itself the best international tournament outside the Rugby World Cup, then it has to make sure the best officiators are in charge of the games.”
The Kiwi-based publication Stuff simply said that Gauzere’s refereeing confirmed that ”the standard of international refereeing is in freefall and shows few signs of bottoming out.”
Again, the fact that we come up against the USA while Gauzere is in charge should mitigate any negative decisions he may take, and this World Cup may give him the chance to restore his credibility.