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Sense of Humour

A few weeks ago, somewhat out of the blue, I receive a note from a friend. I learn that an Australian, Andrew Cole, is to win the prestigious 2021 World Rugby Referee Award.

Over a distinguished career, “Coley” officiates numerous Super Rugby contests as well as 31 full test matches, including games in the Tri-Nations, Six Nations and 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand. Then, hanging up his whistle, he caps a long and distinguished service to the sport by making further significant contributions as a referee coach, mentor, and development officer.

The official press release brings back a flood of memories. While my own time on the International Rugby Board (iRB) elite referee panel, some twenty years ago, equates more to a “cup of coffee” than an actual vocation, I do travel the globe. By way of good fortune, many of these are with Coley, the pair of us part of three-man crews appointed to various matches. One could not hope for better company. Obviously an outstanding official, he is also smart, funny, and good natured. And a card shark to boot, his talent endlessly reinforced in games of Euchre and 500.

Our journeys take us to Singapore, Wales, Italy, Ireland.

And, in November 2000, to Argentina.

South Africa is the opposing team, with the primary focus a final tour match scheduled for the capital city of Buenos Aires. Still, four days prior, the Springboks “A” and Pumas ”A”, full test sides in all but name, meet thirteen hundred kilometers to the north in San Miguel de Tucuman. Coley is to touch judge. I am to referee.

Located on the slopes of the Aconquija mountains, Tucuman is noted for its sugarcane and empanadas. And, though the country’s smallest province, its rugby. The most successful, most passionate of all the outlying unions, its supporters can transform into hostile, partisan hordes when barracking for their orange clad heroes. With rank intimidation, vehemence and aggression palpable.

Certainly, the upcoming game has history behind it, the locals quick to remind me of South Africa’s initial visit to the province in 1993. Indeed, the infamous “Battle of Tucuman” becomes one of the most notorious, violent and savage representative matches ever played. A home team, the "Naranjas" (oranges), bent on mayhem. The Springboks not taking a backward step. Plenty of fighting, kicking and punching. Not even a 5-meter high mesh fence, encircling the field at the Club Atletico, offers safety from flying beer cans and fans wanting to join the on-field fracas.

It is against this taut backdrop, with more than half the current Argentina selection hailing from Tucuman, that the game kicks off. Heavy rain throughout the day makes for difficult conditions, the visitors’ superior skills hampered by a greasy ball and treacherous footing. The Pumas compensate via powerful lineout drives and their world-famous scrum technique, the “bajada”. They recover from an early 14-0 deficit to close within seven points at halftime.

22-15 and all to play for.

The stadium is literally shaking, the fans at fever pitch. It is hard to describe just how noisy an Argentinian crowd can get when incensed or excited. Cries of “Vamos Los Pumas” echo around the ground. Whistles and jeers greet any mistake by the visitors or perceived injustice from the referee. Then, further bedlam, as the hosts, breaking the second half stalemate with a 59th minute penalty, get within a sniff of the lead.

The Boks answer back with a kick of their own, but a successful drop goal restores Argentinian hopes and again narrows the margin to four points. 25-21 South Africa, as the game enters its final stages.

The Pumas monopolize possession, continue to dominate the close quarter exchanges, the collisions between the two packs positively brutal. The home side pulls out all the stops in search of a historic victory.

And then it happens.

The South Africans endure a torrid time, taken apart in the set pieces. Still, scrapping and clawing, putting bodies on the line, they defend bravely. Execute tackle after tackle. Finally, their star flanker isolates a Puma ball carrier and wins for his team what is a crystal-clear penalty.

Unfortunately, I suffer serious brain cramp at just the wrong time. Say what you might, but the relentless pressure exerted by the crowd takes its toll. Following a loud blast of my whistle, incomprehensibly I signal against the visitors. The flanker is furious and lets me know it, to the point I compound my problems by marching him and the Springboks ten meters for dissent.

I search desperately for help, lock eyes with Coley. His mystified expression confirms my costly error, though his palms down signal is a reminder I should slow down, calm down and get my wits about me.

The Argentinian fly half rubs salt in the wounds, as his superb spiral punt finds touch just meters from the South African goal line. Five minutes remain.

I arrive at the lineout. The Boks captain that evening, a live wire #9, organizes his troops. I step in next to him and apologize profusely. “That penalty award just might be the worst decision made this entire season, by anyone, at any level, anywhere”, I offer.

To his immense credit, he grins, then speaks to the forwards in what I assume is Afrikaans. Not privy to his remarks, I am shocked to then see eight grown men, all hulking slabs of granite, suddenly double over, reduced to gales of laughter. The immediate tension of the moment lifts, the Boks poach the ball and clear down field. A potentially sticky situation, one entirely of my own making, is averted.

South Africa even goes one further, combining for a superb chip and chase try in injury time. The ensuing conversion puts additional gloss on a 32-21 final score line.

In the changing sheds afterwards, I reflect with Coley on my good fortune. No World Rugby award for me, but at least an end game that easily could have gone pear shaped does not. I thank my lucky stars for scrum half Dan van Zyl and his sense of humour.


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