William Hewett: Time to allow Super Rugby refs to defend themselves against critics

OPINION: Refereeing is one of the toughest jobs around, with whistle-blowers under just as much pressure as any players.

They make hundreds, if not thousands of split-second decisions with no replays to help them and, of course, we expect them to be spot on every time. 

When they get decisions wrong, they will be heavily scrutinised and critiqued, but we never credit them for correct decisions or calls that could be considered 50-50. 

Every week, referees have abuse hurled at them through the TV screen or social media, even if they may be correct by the letter of the law.

The time has come for referees to step into the light and have a platform to defend themselves, instead of remaining quiet and defenceless, while they’re attacked for their decisions. 

As fans, we need to be educated on the rules, even though we feel we're experts and often think we know more than the refs themselves. 

Opening a discussion each week that looks at the correct and incorrect calls brings the good work the officials do every game into the light. 

The process would educate fans, instead of washing away all the good calls the man/woman in the middle makes every game. 

Unfortunately, in life, if you remain obstinately silent under attack, you merely create a vacuum for the attacks to continue, even if you are in the right. There comes a point where you actually do need to stand up and defend yourself. 

During last week’s Super Rugby Aotearoa round, Brendon Pickerill sparked outrage with his decision to sin-bin Ardie Savea for stopping a try, even though it ‘looked’ legal.

We've heard one side of the story from fans and a frustrated coach, but not the other side. 

Pickerill may have got it wrong - it’s happened before this season - but sometimes a decision that looks dodgy is actually correct by the laws of the game. 

If Pickerell had a platform to discuss his decision, maybe he could teach fans about what goes through his mind when making it. 

Let's not forget, apart from that call, he seemed to get the major decisions right, including another yellow card to Du'Plessis Kirifi.

And by the way, why can't teams use the captain's challenge to query these decisions? Technology was meant to take pressure off referees and avoid the howlers, but rugby lawmakers have put even more heat on the man in the middle by not allowing challenges for all decisions. 

Other sports have occasionally allowed referees the transparency to discuss their decisions to great effect. When Jarred Gillett officiated his final A-League game in 2019, he was mic'd up - not live, but shown later - and seeing the decision-making process, and communication with touchline officials and video assistant referee was a real eye-opener. 

Also in the A-league, when the Western Sydney Wanderers beat Adelaide in December 2019, referee Chris Beath fronted for questions, after two controversial decisions in stoppage time.  

He clearly explained why he made each decision and while some fans still may not agree with them, at least they understood his thought process. 

Giving referees an opportunity to defend themselves would not only educate fans, but also potentially increase the standard of their refereeing by holding them more accountable. 

Current practice - in Super Rugby and NRL - is for the head of referees to front the contentious calls after a review, but maybe the time has come for referees to utilise that platform to defend themselves. 

William Hewett is a Newshub online sports producer