OPINION: Some of the best referees in rugby are South African. But one eyebrow-raising piece of research reveals they might also be the most inclined to favour the home team.

Those who have followed the fortunes of All Blacks teams on their tours of the republic back in the good old days of the game will probably not be surprised, but it would appear that South African rugby teams in Super Rugby receive somewhat of a dream ride at the hands of referees from their own country.

And if the Sanzaar organisation, which claims to preside over the best interests of the combined southern hemisphere competitions, does not pay attention to the piece of number-crunching revealed by Aussie website Green and Gold Rugby on Monday, then it quite simply is not doing its job.

GETTY IMAGES
Argentine referee Federico Anselmi blew a 13-3 penalty count in favour of the Jaguares in Sunday’s clash against the Reds.

Test rugby, thankfully, no longer suffers from any perceptions of referee bias thanks to a neutral appointments policy that has been in place for some time now. The bad old days of the “16th man” are now well and truly over.

But the same cannot be said of the Super Rugby competition which a while back abandoned the neutral referee concept in favour of a merit-based appointment process. That often sees “home” officials taking charge of matches against offshore sides and certainly opens up the possibility of unfair treatment.  

According to the numbers crunched by a Green and Gold Rugby contributor, latest trends in this area are somewhat alarming and revel a major advantage in terms of penalties awarded to South African teams against overseas opposition when refereed by South African referees.

A perusal of social media channels does not always reveal the most considered and well-researched pieces of work, but on Monday morning it was hard not to be impressed by the piece of data-crunching undertaken by one researcher that found its way on to the Green and Gold Rugby forum, and was subsequently promoted by the website on its social media channels.

The researcher pored through the penalty counts from matches in Super Rugby back to the 2017 season involving teams playing offshore sides while being refereed by an official from their own country.

SKY SPORT
Ben Lam’s two tries propelled the Hurricanes to a big win over the Sharks.

The findings are surely deserving of scrutiny from Sanzaar officials who must prioritise the preservation of the integrity of the competition.  

According to the G&G Rugby research, the penalty counts in the qualifying matches showed: Australia – 15 wins (counts in their favour), 8 losses, 3 draws; New Zealand – 16 wins, 21 losses, 2 draws; South Africa – 36 wins, 7 losses, 3 draws; Argentina – 3 wins, 0 losses, 0 draws.

What’s more, the penalty plus/minus account further backs up the vivid perception that South African teams get some fairly favourable treatment in terms of penalties awarded from their own referees.

Super Rugby ‘home town refs’ penalty awarded differential since 2017:
Australia (+16)
New Zealand (-15)
South Africa (+159)
Argentina (+19)

Yes, that’s right, +159 pic.twitter.com/DkIg8cTAvx

— Green and Gold Rugby (@GAGR)

The penalty +\- in matches refereed by a home official against offshore opposition: Australia +16; New Zealand -15; South Africa +159; Argentina +19.

The number-cruncher also noted that South African sides had only lost two of the last 29 penalty counts in the republic when refereed by a “home” official. The biggest differential in a single match was the +19 afforded the Lions in a clash against the Rebels last year in which Egon Seconds whistled a 20-1 advantage to the home side as they roared back from a 33-5 deficit to win 36-33.

Now, there are some things to be considered here. The sample size of the Jaguares games is a small one and might not be as indicative as the more broader numbers from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Also, the research does not analyse the accuracy of the decisions and purely presents the numbers. It’s possible teams deserved high penalty counts against them in some of these matches.

Possible.

But if perception is the gateway to reality, then Super Rugby at the very least has some major issues around the fairness of its officials when they are asked to referee teams from their own country against those from other nations.

On Sunday in Buenos Aires the Jaguares were penalised just three times to the 13 infringements whistled against the Reds by Argentine referee Federico Anselmi as the home side roared back to roll the Queenslanders 43-27.

That lopsided count may indeed have been a fair one (though not if you read Australian media reports of the contest). But because it was dished out by a home country referee, then the possibility of bias hangs over the match like a long, dark cloud.

The fix is easy. Go fully neutral. There is a cost, but is it greater than the blows being suffered to the integrity of the sport itself? 

Food for thought certainly. Do not hold your breath waiting for a lightning response from Sanzaar.

This content was originally published here.