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Blowing The Whistle On Referees

On Sunday 31 January the world witnessed one of the most shocking performances by a referee that has reopened an unwanted can of worms and questions that surely needs to be addressed seeing as the game of Sevens has finally been awarded Olympic status and we are mere months away from this global showpiece that will take place in Rio de Janeiro.

Let’s rewind a few months ago to the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final match between Scotland and Australia at Twickenham, where referee Craig Joubert, made what will forever be known as one of the worst calls in the history of the tournament, when he awarded a decisive penalty for offside in open play, with TV replays suggesting it may have been the wrong call. World Rugby days later claimed it to be wrong and gave the benefit of doubt to Joubert which we feel was fair to all parties’ involved, read explanation here: .

Fast forward to Saturday 30 January, where we find ourselves in the final round robin match of the Wellington Sevens, which was played between hosts New Zealand and South Africa. Mike Adamson the man in the middle with the whistle in a match where the winner would get a much easier route through to the final as they would avoid the ever-dangerous Fiji in a possible semi-final matchup.

South Africa, also known as the Blitzboks were out the blocks fast and raced to a 7-5 lead at halftime. After the break it was the New Zealand 7s to score first only with the Blitzboks to retake the lead with only 47 seconds left in the match. With the conversion made there was still time left to restart the game and then it all went pear-shaped with some very contentious calls all going the way of New Zealand. As the clock had run out the only way the match could be kept alive was through penalties and somehow the Blitzboks “started infringing” in a game where their discipline was very good all round. From the restart the Blitzboks caught the Kiwis in their 22meter area with the ball and kept it up for some period of time, eventually collapsing to the ground. Adamson immediately awarded the hosts a penalty that seems to have been for not rolling away by the Blitzboks. Surely the men in green held the ball up long enough to have been awarded the scrum? Anyhow, the New Zealanders ran all of a 100meters to score and claim the much needed victory and all round questions were appearing.

Winning the pool meant that New Zealand would not get to face the mighty islanders from Fiji only until they reach the Final, if all went according to plan.


Then came Sunday 31 January…

The men from South Africa were on a collision course to meet Fiji in the Cup semi-final if they successfully beat Australia in the Cup quarter-final, which they did.

It was game on for the South African speedsters and boy did they surprise not just Fiji but the whole sevens loving world. The Blitzboks were unstoppable against a team that has had their number for a couple of seasons now. They smashed the islanders 31 – 0 with a performance that got everyone’s attention and surely that of New Zealand too, who to be dead honest, had not been looking like much this new season got underway.

Finally the game everyone hoped to see, after the dismal performance Mike Adamson delivered with the whistle on Saturday, was underway. All hopes was on a fair contest. A match the referee would remain anonymous.

As expected the Blitzboks struck with their first blow with Captain Philip Snyman crashing over for the first try of the match in less than 3minutes. Only 2minutes later and New Zealand were trailing 14 – 0 thanks to Man of The Tournament, Rosco Speckman. Then the men in black hit their straps to open their scoring account with a converted try and that’s how it remained until halftime, 14 – 7.

The South Africans capitalised on another error from rugby superstar, Sonny Bill Williams within the first minute of the second half to get series-leading try scorer Seabelo Senatla over the line thanks to quick thinking from Francois Hougaard and extend the Blitzboks lead to 14 points. That’s when it all started for Matt O’Brien, son of former referees’ boss, Paddy O’Brien who he himself had some memorable moments in his career… (Read captions on video)

As seen on the match video below (game clock: 4:15), O’Brien awards New Zealand a penalty for no clear reason…surely Juan de Jongh is allowed to turn over and place the ball after being tackled? This penalty then leads to Speckman being yellow carded for being “offside” when he played the ball after his try-saving tackle on Gillies Kaka (sources we spoke to as well as the commentators on the video felt this to be the reason and correct call by O’Brien). That subsequent penalty led to the Kiwis second try of which the conversion was missed and forced them in to a situation where they would have to score twice again if they wanted to win with the score standing at 21-12 to the Blitzboks.

From the next restart the South Africans win the ball and then one can clearly see Francois Hougaard get high tackled (game clock: 2:22) with no reaction from O’Brien, however he hands New Zealand an immediate penalty yet again for who knows what?? At the same moment you can also see Chris Dry clearly being handled dangerously, right in-front of O’Brien with zero obstruction, yet no reaction whatsoever from the ref or his officials!! What happens next? You guessed it!!! Another converted Kiwi try and the difference now only down to 2 points with only 30seconds left.

Another restart and de Jongh wins it and breaks through with Senatla and Cheslin Kolbe on his left well into the New Zealand half. De Jongh passes off to Senatla who unnoticed runs into a Kiwi defender with the ball popping out clearly backwards with Kolbe snatching it mid-air and straight through to score (game clock: 0:07) only to be blown up for a “knock-on”?? Replays clearly show Kolbe collecting the ball from behind the mark of where the ball left Senatla and also one can clearly see the ball travel backwards from where it leaves Senatla’s hands and body.

After this we see O’Brien play numerous advantages for the Kiwis including one penalty and then the try after the hooter that sealed the deal for New Zealand in what should have been South Africa’s first victory in Wellington since 2009.

Now, we as fans and supporters of this wonderful sport really want to ask the powers that be to take control of a situation that has gone way past the point it should have gone. Every season the standard of referees are getting worse and worse yet nothing seems to be done to get it up where it belongs. The rugby loving public around the world spend thousands each year because they enjoy the game, but incompetent referees are spoiling it and causing people to wonder away from the game they so dearly loved.

How can this sport go to the Olympics when results are wrongly decided by match officials more often these days than ever before? Will it be fine if a referee that can’t be unbiased and fair makes blatant mistakes which everyone can see? How can the IOC or World Rugby allow something like this to be the decider of who becomes the Olympic Champions? The outcry is high on performance enhancing, affecting the game and needing to stop. Yet we are faced with referees making bigger howlers by the year.

A referee or his assistants are merely there to enforce laws of the game. They are not there to become the talking point of matches afterwards. If a referee or his assistants become the talking point then they have failed at their jobs and as players who fail and pay the price, surely the same needs to start applying for match officials as well. The public should be allowed to know this as they do when players get dropped!

Is it that much to ask to get referees that do their jobs for the reason it was meant? We refer to the World Rugby Laws Rule 6.A.4.a for this final point:

The referee is the sole judge of fact and of Law during a match. The referee must apply fairly all the Laws of the Game in every match.

Must say it is rather sad to see that Matt O’Brien already had this on his Wikipedia page minutes after the Final (has since been removed): “O’Brien refereed the 2016 Wellington Sevens Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa that was won by New Zealand after a controversial yellow card to South Africa’s Rosco Speckman. He also awarded several controversial penalties in succession in favour of his home nation.”

We acknowledge and understand that referees will always make mistakes like all humans. We can also look at the Fiji game and realise that South Africa may have received some contentious calls but looking in the last 10 years the number of high profile howlers by referees has increased a 100 fold and it has become unacceptable. There is a need for accountability.

We know you are better than this Matt O’Brien, please help other referees not make the same mistake?

Jacques was the founder & webmaster of and was a sports lover of note. He liked writing opinion pieces that matter. In honour of his legacy we will keep posting and keeping his dream alive. RIP 1977 - 2022

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