The standard of officiating in the United Rugby Championship is a continuing topic of debate, as it was during the PRO12 / 14 era. The man charged with overseeing the whole system is South Africa’s former international referee Tappe Henning, who has been at the helm since December as the tournament’s head of officials.
He has been speaking to the media and addressing a wide array of issues. This is what he had to say:
Question: How do you reflect on your first three months in the job?
Answer: It’s been a rollercoaster ride since I was appointed in December. Coming into the competition half way through the season, under the conditions of Covid, there have been a lot of challenges with games being postponed and changed. It’s been a case of looking to sail the ship into the harbor. I don’t know if I’ve had time to enjoy it yet! It’s been very busy getting to all the questions and queries, but it’s exciting.
The biggest challenge has been the perception of different interpretations between north and south. There has been a big focus on talking, the communication between coaches and match officials. Interpretation and consistency are probably the two things coaches mention the now.
Q: The standard of officiating in competition has been a source of continuing debate and criticism over the years. How aware were you of that and how would you sum up the current standard?
A: I was very aware of the criticism. If we look at why that is happening, it’s because technology is now bringing spectators closer to the game, which puts refereeing decisions under the microscope. With all the camera angles and replays, things become visible that were not visible a decade ago watching the game from the stand.
The information available to the public now is so much more via the broadcasters. It is putting a lot of incidents out there for people to look at and scrutinize for accuracy and that has created more pressure. Refereeing decisions are so exposed and discussed because it’s much more available. It goes on Twitter and all social media and that creates a perception that the match officials are poor or not as good as the previous ones, like Derek Bevan. But the technology wasn’t the same when Derek refereed. That’s not an excuse, we understand that.
There were as many as 36 cameras being used at the last World Cup in Japan, while the individual on the pitch still only has two eyes. We can’t compete with the technology. What we are trying to do is learn from it. We embrace the technology to help us be better. I would say we have a strong group of referees. Twelve of them have been exposed to the international level.
Q: When mistakes are made by your officials, what is your response to that?
A: It’s a team effort, so we look at the whole process. We don’t want to blame one individual for an error or a mistake when there’s a team working on that decision. We identify where the flaws are and then we offer remedial work. Do we come down hard on people? Yes, we have very honest chats. We look each other in the eye and put up our hands and be accountable for that decision. But our remedial process is a long-term one. We are not focused on a kneejerk reaction to hire and fire on every mistake. If we did that, we would have no match officials left half way through the season because they are going to make mistakes. We keep on working, looking to make them better. If there is no change and no improvement from individuals, then we will make the decision that they are not good enough to perform at this level.
Q: Are referees over-protected in the sense that players and coaches get pulled up on their performance publicly, but referees are excused on the basis it’s a team error?
A: It’s a sensitive one in that these match officials we have in the URC are contracted by their Unions. That is their job. Key decisions we are happy to discuss. People want to know was it right, was it wrong. But the overall performance of an individual is still a personal issue between employee and employer. It becomes a minefield if we put an assessment on somebody’s work out in public for people to read that. There is that protection we need to give to employees in terms of their performance in their job. I don’t think there’s any other business where the assessment of an employee’s work is being put out in the public domain.
Q: Is it your desire and objective to have all the officials in each URC match being neutral?
A: We are aiming for the key decision-makers, the referee and the IOM, to be neutral for every game. The assistant referees will be a challenge because it’s a big exercise financially. In the play-off games, we will have a full-on neutral.
Q: What is your take on the role of the IOM and what should their level of involvement be in games?
A: World Rugby has appointed someone to specifically look at the IOM protocol as a project, in terms of how the process should work. I think that is going to make it much better. At the moment, the referee is the leader of the team and they need to take the lead on those decisions, unless they don’t have a good view on the big screen. Nigel Owens would say “I want you to put that on the screen for me” and he tells the TMO what he’s inside. That is the basic framework of the IOM referral. The referee still needs to own it. Only if the referee is totally off the mark should the TMO make him aware of the information to achieve an accurate decision.
Q: Can you see a situation where what the referee says during a game is played over the PA, so that fans in the ground don’t get frustrated over why he has made a decision?
A: For me, personally, we will get to the stage where that will happen. We have had a request from one of the franchises in South Africa to do that in one of the games. At that stage, there was a bit of a technical issue over feedback through the ref’s mic. But there is a real need for it and if that will improve the experience of the fans in the ground, we are all for it. It’s not a confidential discussion. There are some risks involved. Sometimes players use rugby language and I have heard TV commentators apologizing for that. There are some things that need to be ironed out and fine tuned, but I can foresee it happening in the future, maybe next season. It’s for the good of the game, so let’s do it. Then everyone can hear why a decision is made. They might still disagree, but at least they will understand what the referee’s thinking was at the time. So I’m a huge fan of that.
Q: What are your thoughts on the 20-minute red card which is being trialled in Super Rugby?
A: There is a lot of information being collected to see the impact it has on a competition. We have to protect the integrity of 80 minutes rugby and the enjoyment of someone who has paid to see 15 against 15, only for it to be spoiled after two minutes by a red card.
The other side of the coin is if you want to change player behavior, with head shots and things, the punishment must fit the crime. How do you change behavior with soft decisions? There must be a tangible consequence for players to realize they must take more care on how they handle themselves on the pitch. If the punishment does not fit the crime, it is not going to change the behavior.
I believe we will get to an appropriate solution to protect our 80 minutes of rugby. We need to do a lot of research to come up with the best outcome. But I am a big supporter of protecting 15 against 15 in some form of a decision about red cards.
Q: In terms of high tackles and good contact, are you seeing players change behavior as a result of all the cards being issued?
A: There is an improvement. Players are much more aware and the decision-making by defenders is getting better as they move into a tackle. We are seeing an effort to get head and arm in the right place to make sure two heads are not in the same space.
We are a bit concerned that there is still a lot of inconsistency in how it’s being dealt with and the mitigation process. On some occasions, the mitigation is being looked for and we would like the mitigation to show itself rather than being chased.
We are having a URC and EPCR workshop next week to discuss this before we go into our play-off stages, so we can align ourselves a bit better and have a better understanding between match officials, but also so players and coaches know what to expect .
Q: The breakdown is another area of player welfare concern with lots of injuries. What can match officials do to make that a safer place for players?
A: What we are looking to do is if a jackal has his hands on the ball, we are not waiting to see it if he survives the first clean-out. We try to protect that player with a quicker decision and reward him with a penalty before he gets hit by the cavalry who are probably two or three meters away. That is our effort to make it safer.
Q: Is there anything on the horizon in terms of the use of Hawkeye technology?
A: We are looking at Hawkeye. We believe it will have an impact on the quality of decision-making from the TMO and an impact on ball tracking with forward passes and stuff like that, similar to what they do in cricket.
We have had a joint meeting with EPCR, Premiership Rugby and URC and we are entering into a test phase with Hawkeye to put it in front of our stakeholders and boards, to show them all the options available and what is workable. So we are investigating the technology to get it in our game as soon as possible. Hopefully by the start of next season we will be in a position to put it in front of our board to make a decision about whether it can be implemented.