Bryan Habana: Criticising referees 'goes against the values of the game'

South African rugby great speaks to 'The National' about controversial Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, fairness, and football

Former South African rugby star Bryan Habana says criticising match officials for mistakes 'obviously goes against the values of the game.' PA
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It might be fair to assume Bryan Habana took a wrong turn when he ended up in Dubai rather than Doha last weekend.

Everything points to him heading to the Middle East for a jaunt to the football World Cup instead.

His forename was given to him in honour of Bryan Robson, the former Manchester United and England captain.

His middle name, Gary, was inspired by Gary Bailey, the South African former Manchester United goalkeeper.

And his brother, Bradley, works for the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy in Doha.

Had life worked out a little differently, the name Habana might have been synonymous with football, rather than its oval-ball offshoot of rugby.

It was his first sporting love until the Springboks winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup on home soil stole him away for good.

“I only got into rugby aged 13, and I grew up wanting to be the next South African export to the Premier League,” Habana told The National.

“I was actually a left wing in soccer as well, funnily enough. Rugby was the furthest thing from my brain, up until the 1995 World Cup. That was a massive watershed moment in my life in terms of picking up the sport.”

He says he is still a “fair weather” Manchester United supporter, although not with anything like the passion he felt following the glory days of the 1999 treble-winning side.

And he says he has barely had chance to check in on football’s showpiece event in Qatar, so busy has his work been.

Former South African rugby player Bryan Habana speaks to young aspiring players ahead of the 2022 Emirates Dubai Sevens.

Which included travelling to Dubai for the Emirates Dubai Sevens. He was there as an ambassador for the HSBC World Sevens Series’ sponsors, and their world of opportunities programme.

The role includes showing aspiring players what other opportunities are available within the sport, should they not reach the pro game as a player.

Given the prevailing atmosphere in the international game at present, he might have counselled them away from wanting to be a referee.

The feeling between some coach and the game’s officials has been toxic for some time. Chiefly, Rassie Erasmus, the coach who has overseen South Africa’s wins at the World Cup, as well as against the British & Irish Lions.

Last year Erasmus was banned for two months by World Rugby for a video critique of the officiating during the Lions tour. His side eventually won that series.

Then last month he was banned for two more matches for social media criticism of referees.

In passing down the punishment, World Rugby pointed out “match officials are the backbone of the sport and without them there is no game.” Habana agrees Erasmus’ methods are anti to the spirit of the sport.

“It obviously goes against the values of the game,” Habana said.

“If it was a leaked video or a deliberate video, does it impact the game and its integrity? A hundred percent it does.

“In my opinion, if that video had not come out, I don’t think the Springboks would have won that series.

“Does that then impact the game at a grassroots and amateur level? Massively. Does it open the gates for parents and Tom, Dick and Harry to abuse the referee? It probably does.

“How the situation is then being handled is much more important. A referee can really influence the outcome of the game.

“For all teams, there has always been a lot of inconsistencies in certain instances.”

South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Getty Images

He points out that referees have the hardest job in the sport.

“Rugby is a very complex game,” said Habana, who was World Rugby’s player of the year in 2007 after helping inspire the Boks to win the World Cup.

“How do we get to a point where, at every ruck there are six or seven things a ref has to look at within the space of five seconds, things are appropriately officiated?

“If a referee gets it wrong, what is the protocol? I am a fan, and I am not sure we know what the protocol is for what happens.

“Their job is, without a doubt, the most difficult one on a rugby pitch. If you are talking about Rassie, then Warren Gatland also subtly influenced the ref. You can’t throw stones living in a glass house.

“I think the guy is an unbelievable rugby player but what example is [Ireland fly-half] Johnny Sexton setting in terms of the way he talks to referees?”

He believes Erasmus’ methods have just been more explicit than other examples, like Eddie Jones, who was sacked as England coach this week, or Gatland, who has been restored as Wales coach.

“Is it just Rassie? I don’t think so,” Habana said. “At some point, all coaches have had a jibe. If Eddie Jones or Warren Gatland says something, at what point do we [start banning everyone].

“A 62-minute video is probably a bit ridiculous. But is it different to someone saying something in a press conference?

“Eddie Jones had a decent dig at a TMO in a press conference recently, and that was adjudicated differently to Rassie.

“Does it give the game a good look? Definitely not. Is Rassie doing it for a reason? I believe so. Would I have done it? Definitely not.

“But he is probably doing it for the sake of a positive outcome eventually. I don’t know Rassie personally. I don’t have his cell phone number.

“I don’t know what the inner talking of the team are. There must have been a lot of pressure on the team performing on field, unfortunately.”

Updated: December 07, 2022, 8:23 AM