One of rugby’s timeless sub narratives, refereeing has come to assume even greater importance.
Part of Ireland’s preparation for the final match in this year’s Six Nations Championship will be to try to look into the soul of Jaco Peyper. The physical meets the metaphysical.
It’s the way the professional whistling job now operates, a detailed collaboration, a team of us kind of affair with cameras everywhere.
The South African, a qualified lawyer, has had significant influence on the outcome of matches before, not least of all in Ireland’s second Test against New Zealand last summer.
In the second Test, New Zealand wing Leicester Fainga’anuku jumped into wing Mack Hansen and slammed the Irish player in the face with his shoulder. Yellow only.
There is a picture of Peyper holding the card in the air with an unimpressed Johnny Sexton standing next to him, a bubble caption above Sexton’s head begging to be written.
That is the captain’s role. It has become part of rugby that his mission includes on-pitch interrogation of the referee’s decision-making, including demands to know how the official interprets nuanced aspects of the game. Captains have become real-time influencers.
Last week, late in the first half of Ireland’s match at Murrayfield, prop Andrew Porter suggested to English referee Luke Pearce that he should yellow card Stuart Hogg after the Scotland full back slowed Ireland’s breakdown ball deep in their own half.
After awarding a penalty to Ireland, Pearce called the Irish captain across to warn him: “Be careful Johnny – this player asking for a yellow card might go as well.”
In that instance Ireland drew a tetchy reaction from Pearce. In commentary, former international referee Nigel Owens asked what effect it might have had on the game. Owens further speculated whether Hogg was rescued by the ‘rebound effect’ of the Irish questioning.
“While I can’t answer for Pearce, I can state with total confidence that I would not have carded a player after everyone on the field had heard this input from one of his opponents,” said Owens.
In the same match Pearce twice marched Scotland back 10 metres following dissent, an approach that is, given the fact the 35-year-old referee is younger than Sexton, quaintly old-school.
Captain Jamie Ritchie was also advised by Pearce not to be in his face. Again, this is where experience comes in and suggests the Scottish captain was struggling to effectively communicate with the match official, or get him to listen to the point he wanted to make.
It is an acquired and increasingly relevant skill, an ability to talk effectively to a referee and establish a rapport that is not based on threats and counter threats.
Just recently Owens revealed that South African director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has made initial contact with him about the prospect of joining their backroom team ahead of this year’s Rugby World Cup in France.
Owens retired in 2020 after 17 seasons as a top-level referee and holds the record for most Test matches. He told the website Wales Online that Erasmus had approached him and asked if he would be interested in returning to the Test arena and joining them this summer.
The 51-year-old explained that his post would entail moving to South Africa to be embedded with the squad and fill the newly created position of “law and strategy consultant”.
“It would entail me refereeing their contact sessions and helping them with their understanding of what they can and can’t do on the field,” said Owens.
“I think these kinds of roles are good for the integrity of the game as a whole and benefit the players and the referees.”
The request can be interpreted as Erasmus’s recognition of referee power and how it interfaces with players, how officials directly influence outcomes and how players can learn to ask appropriate questions.
“Even if they don’t land Owens and have to go with somebody else, the position in itself is another example of Erasmus’s incredible out-of-the-box thinking and his meticulous planning,” said Nick Mallett, South Africa’s coach between 1997 and 2000.
“Getting Owens on board really would be a win-win situation for the Boks, who have been on the wrong end of big refereeing decisions consistently.”
Peyper and Sexton both understand winning and losing is not only about who is better on the day. It’s also about what weights the decisions and how referees prioritise information coming at them all the time.
Psychologists also talk about unconscious bias, which can come down to the relatively trivial detail of the colour of shirts. A study into football found that since 1947, English soccer teams wearing red shirts have been champions more often than expected.
Another study in Germany found home teams with running tracks in their stadia attract more penalising cards than teams playing in stadia with less distance between the crowd and the pitch.
And so it goes. A 43-year-old South African is pitching up in the Aviva Stadium on St Patrick’s weekend with Ireland needing to beat England for a Grand Slam.
From Peyper’s point of view, Dublin could be harrowing. Thankfully, if it gets too much Sexton is always on his shoulder to help out.