It could just be a great contribution to solving what is too often a problem
The Varsity Cup matches in 2014 will be played with two referees on the field. It's not a new idea but the use of it is moving up a notch with the Varsity Cup.
In the early days of rugby, two umpires were used who ran about the field with short sticks. If the captains could not make a decision, the umpires were called. If both sticks were up or both sticks were down to indicate an agreement, the decision was made.
If the umpires did not agree the matter was referred to a man on the sideline, a referee. If the decision was still not agreeable to a team, they could refer the matter to their union. It was a clumsy process. But early on the principle of having two match officials on the field was acceptable.
In the 1950s the SA Rugby Board through Doc Danie Craven and the Board's secretary Kockie de Kock asked the IRB to sanction the use of two referees. The IRB turned it down.
In 1986 Dawie Snyman, the versatile Springbok, was coaching Western Province. In Bloemfontein they lost to Free State and Snyman, disgruntled, came home to Stellenbosch with the video.
Instead of attending to his family that Sunday he sat going through the video and muttering about refereeing decisions or non-decisions. His wife Pam, fed up, said to him: "You rugby people are so stupid." (The word she used was dom.) "You are the only sport with 30 players, complex laws and one referee. Get two referees."
Snyman thought about it and the next morning, at six o'clock, he was sitting on Craven's bed, telling him his plan for two referees. Craven thought he meant the hockey or the basketball system where there is an official for each half. But Snyman said that that still did not solve the problem of a one-man decision. He wanted the field divided in half vertically, from goal post to goal post, with two referees moving up and down the field with play with neither referee in charge.
Craven told Snyman to consult the Stellenbosch club's executive. They agreed that it could be used in the koshuis (residence) league, a passionate competition of great rugby. But when Snyman took the idea to the referees they would have none of it.
Their objections included insufficient referees to go round and not enough exercise for referees. But eventually the referees agreed and it became immensely popular amongst the referees and Professor Justus Potgieter became a great proponent of the system, Wynand Mans, one of the top referees in the country at the time also promulgated the idea. It is a system that presently has the support of André Watson and Jonathan Kaplan, two men who achieved great heights in refereeing.
The two-referees system is still used in the first league of Stellenbosch's koshuis rugby. In 2014 it will be used in the Varsity Cup - only the cup and not the other competitions for logistical reasons.
One of the arguments against having two referees was an increase in the number of penalties. The reverse proved true. A player knows instinctively where the referee is and what he can get away with. That instinct is destroyed by two referees and so player attitudes change and coaches' attitudes also change as it is in their interests to see that players do not cheat.
In koshuis rugby, under the one-referee system, the best the ball had been in play was 31 minutes out of 60; under the two-referee system the best that the ball had been in play was 47 minutes. Under the two-referee system penalties dropped as low as four a match. Where the club would have disciplinary hearings for on average five players a week sent off for foul play, in the six years from 1991 to 1996 there was not one such hearing.
There are other advantages - prolonging the active life span of referees and as a tool to train young referees.
In practice the referee in whose section of the field play is takes responsibility for the decisions and tends to be closer to play while the other has a wider angle. The referee in the other segment of the field can still suggest a line of action. If the referees differ they can still stop play and consult each other and come to a decision. It is not a problem. Its usefulness at scrums is obvious.
In 1995, during the Rugby World Cup, some delegates went out to Stellenbosch to see the two referees in action and were not impressed. But then they were not impressed before they went. There will be people who will be, like the referees in Stellenbosch in 1986, sure that the system will not work.
There will be referees who will not want their central spot in the limelight dimmed, but on the other hand its hard to shoot at two targets at once, and there may not be as much criticism of referees if there are two. The limelight might not burn as harshly.
It's best to keep an open mind and examine the outcome of the system eventually. It could just be a great contribution to solving what is too often a problem, at matches, even at the highest level.
By Paul Dobson