Referee Craig Joubert talks about the highs and lows of his 12-year career, and his future in the game

David O'Sullivan
David O’Sullivan

One of South Africa’s most internationally-recognised referees, Craig Joubert, has decided to call time on his career in the 15-man game. He’ll concentrate on refereeing on the World Sevens Circuit and will also be involved in developing young up-and-coming referees under the auspices of the world governing body for the sport, World Rugby. Joubert has been taking charge of 1st class rugby matches for 12 years rising from Currie Cup rugby to World Cup finals. He’s attracted fans and detractors – more of the former than the latter – over the years. As so often happens with referees, they become the centre of attention when they get it wrong, not when they get it right. Joubert found himself at the centre of a storm twice for his handling of a match – after the 2014 Waratahs-Crusaders Super Rugby final and the 2015 World Cup quarterfinal between Scotland and Australia when he erroneously awarded Australia a final minute penalty which won them the game. In the wake of the uproar, he was praised for the way he took the criticism on the chin and admitted his errors. Joubert will be remembered more for the way he won the confidence of the players and coaches around him and was regarded as one of the top referees in the world. I spoke to him on Hot91.9’s Joburg PM show. – David O’Sullivan

Craig, has it taken a bit of soul-searching before you arrived at the decision to quit the 15-man game, quit refereeing it?

Yes, look, it wasn’t an easy decision and there are some exciting things happening in rugby over the next few years. Possibly I could have been involved in the Lions’ tour to New Zealand next year and of course the build-up to the World Cup in Japan but this was just an opportunity that presented itself with World Rugby that was very exciting.  And you get to a stage in your career where you need to be open to opportunities, and this one presented itself.  It was a good opportunity and what it does, it allows me to walk away on my terms.  It’s nice to get to the end of your career, to be able to call time on your career at your time, on your terms, and that’s what I feel really good about – to be able to roll over into a career I feel really passionate about.

Well let’s talk about the job – Referee Talent Development Coach.  What exactly does that entail, Craig?

There is a dual purpose to the role, a lot of it is on the 7s circuit.  You know I reff’d on the 7s circuit this year and went to the Olympic Games, and the 7s is a very exciting place.  It is obviously taking off, Cape Town was abuzz this weekend with the 7s here and, like anything, there is an obvious need to make sure that the officiating of the 7s keeps pace with the development of the game.  So I will still be refereeing on the 7s and also coaching and mentoring the referees there.  So really building a team towards the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.  Also I am very excited about the 7s side of the job. And then outside of the 7s season there will be some development with referees across the globe, some development of some tier 2 referees and development of referees generally.

Image courtesy of Twitter @Springboks
Image courtesy of Twitter @Springboks

It seems this is something you have been doing before to a certain extent, when we look at the work you have been doing with Rasta Rasivhenge who has come along in leaps and bounds and was nominated for a World Rugby award.

Yes, it is something I’ve done in my time at SARU, working with the young referees coming through in South Africa.  And Rasta is obviously a guy who I have spent a lot of time with on the 7s, he is just a fantastic dude and I have loved taking him under my wing a little bit and spending some time with him, helping develop him as a person and obviously as a referee.  I have enjoyed that so much, the time that I have spent with him, I just know that the opportunity to do that with other young referees is really exciting to me.

You were the very first referee I ever interviewed on television.  I had just started at the SABC and I think you had just started – you and James Sheriff were the two young referees who were coming through – and we used to do Vodacom Cup games on SABC TV and we were in Randfontein I seem to recall doing an interview with you there. For me it just seems the other day that we were doing this but when we reflect on it, it has been a twelve-year career. Do referees have that kind of longevity?

Yes, what we have seen in refereeing over the years is a bit a shift in how careers pan out.  You know probably the generation ago, referees used to start a lot later in life so they were in their mid-30s when they started refereeing international rugby.  So a 10 or 12 year career would take them through to about 45, which is an age most referees start to get to the end. I guess in my generation, what we are seeing is a few of us who came through and started refereeing internationally quite a lot younger than the previous generation had.  And so what that means is a 10- or 12-year career now does not actually take you through to 45 anymore.  So whilst in my particular case I probably had a few years left in me both from an age and physical perspective, I think 12 years at this level is a good stint and while I could have gone on, I want to be open to opportunities and what’s next.  You never want to be standing still and not challenging yourself and developing new skills.  I think that everyone quite naturally gets to some stage in their career, it is not necessarily relevant to age.

I would imagine that your frequent flyer miles must be something to behold.  Will the travelling be something that you are not really going to miss that much?

Well David, you know with my work on the 7s, I am probably going to do as much international travel as I have been doing for the past 12 years.  I have done all the 7s tournaments and there’s 13 to 14 weeks of international travel for that.  Look you’re right, the frequent flyer miles do really pile up but the travel is something which you never take for granted, and never forget the privilege of getting to travel around the world and being involved in a game that you are passionate about.  But you know with a young family it is also probably one of the greatest challenges of the job.  And so whilst I will still be travelling internationally as much as I probably have, I guess the difference for me personally is when I get back to South Africa I am not going to be running out every weekend refereeing and I guess that extra time over the weekends back at home with my young family and watching my kids play sport on a Saturday morning is another part of my next chapter that I am very excited about and looking forward to.

Now that you’ve decided to quit the 15-man game, have you had time to reflect on that career?  You have been involved in such incredible matches.  You have done so much – over a 100 Super Rugby matches, the World Cups, the World Cup Finals, the Super Rugby finals.  Have you been able to pause and look back at what you have achieved?

Yes, I guess you do that, don’t you?  When you give it away, you do have a moment to look back on your career and remember some of the good occasions and some of the disappointments. It’s probably natural to look back in your career and appreciate what you have done and what you have been through, and you remember some of them fondly, and some of them as challenging moments, but all look good in your development in what you do and as a person.  It has been good to look back and reflect on what the career has been.

waratahs_logo-svgIf I can ask you to touch on a couple of those moments, what for you have been those challenges? The two that will stand out are Waratahs against the Crusaders in 2014 and probably the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal Scotland against Australia.  Would those have been the tougher times for you because there was a lot of scrutiny, a lot of criticism there?

Yes, that is the nature of the environment that we are in. You are going to face challenging times and I guess for me after the disappointment of the last World Cup, I was pretty determined to pick myself up and show my character in 2016.  For me your character is not defined by whether you get knocked down, but how you stand up again.  And you know in 2016 I had the opportunity to go straight back into the arena and I got a Six Nations appointment, England against Wales at Twickenham, probably the key game of this year’s Six Nations.  So going straight back into the arena in that game, going straight back into England/Australia in Melbourne in June, the Rugby Championship, big game in Cardiff at the end of the year, in addition to Test match rugby, getting stuck into Super Rugby this year and obviously the Olympic Games. It’s great to go back into the arena.  Obviously you are aware of the noise and you are aware of the doubters, of the anonymous people on social media. But the thrill of being in the arena, blocking out the external distractions and looking solely to remaining connected with the players in the moment and to concentrate on their game – that’s what kept driving me, keeping your head and walking off knowing that it takes courage and skill to do what we do.  And that’s what really drove me this year and hopefully that’s what defines your character and not just the disappointments that come along the way.

Certainly, I would imagine that it is a lot more important to win the confidence of the players and the coaches rather than winning the confidence of the trolls on social media.  The way that you handled both of those incidents, if we could single out those two, by confronting, by talking to the players, talking to the coaches, and resolving the matter as quickly as possible.  You probably found that the players accepted you better as a result of that.  Is that what happened?

Yes David, that’s always been my driving force as a referee, my priority has always been first to the players.  And I need to maintain the respect and confidence of the players and you only do that by respecting them in the first place.  That for me is what the art of refereeing is all about, so if there are some trolls out there on social media, I certainly can’t control that, but you can’t allow yourself to be affected by that.  Remaining committed with the players out there on the field and hopefully giving them a sense that you are there for the right reasons, for their game and contributing towards them, having a good afternoon has always been my driving force.  So that for me is something the art of refereeing has always driven me.

I remember (former referee) Mark Lawrence saying that if nobody writes about him in a match report, he knows he’s had a good game.  Let’s reflect on some of the good games, games where we are not aware that you took a particular pride in the game.  Are there particular stand-out matches for you?

Yes, I was reflecting this week on my career and thinking about that.  I think probably the game that I look back on and I think probably was my best refereeing performance was in 2011, the World Cup Quarter Final down in Wellington – Ireland against Wales. It stands out in my mind as a game that was really great.  The Irish and the Welsh supporters are two of the best and you know they sing and they chant and that atmosphere is just great when those two nations play each other.  And looking back, probably my first big playoff game in a World Cup tournament and I felt, reflecting on my career, that my refereeing performance stands out. For a lot of reasons that was a special weekend for me.

Can you remember your first 1st class match in domestic South African competitions?

Yes, I can, very much so.  I refereed a Currie Cup game down in Kimberley, Griquas against the Pumas, and growing up as a young man in South Africa we did not play international sport.  So the Currie Cup was our rugby, and the Currie Cup final was the most important day in our rugby calendar, so the Currie Cup has always meant an enormous amount to me.  So when I got the opportunity to referee that match, my first Currie Cup game, and I ran out there in Kimberley you know I had goose bumps.  Perhaps not the most glamorous place in the world Kimberley, but it meant a lot to me and to be able to get my first Currie Cup under my belt, I remember that as a really big moment in my career.

Rugby Union - Australia v Scotland - IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Quarter Final - Twickenham Stadium, London, England - 18/10/15 Scotland's Greig Laidlaw shouts at referee Craig Joubert after he awarded a penalty to Australia in the last minute of the game Reuters / Eddie Keogh
Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw shouts at referee Craig Joubert after he awarded a penalty to Australia in the last minute of the game. Reuters / Eddie Keogh

Which of the players did you find challenged you most on the field, not in a negative way, but their understanding of the laws of the game made sure you were as astute as them?

I don’t like to single out players either positively or negatively, but in situations where teams feel that they are not playing as well as they think they should, as a referee you have got to understand that that brings frustration to them and therefore some of that frustration boils over with you.  And again, one of the arts of being a referee is being able to manage yourself and manage people in those situations and manage the fact that there will be some frustrations here and it will not all be directed at me, but some of it might come my way.  Those are the moments when you really need that man management, the ability to connect with players is really important, understanding the greater frustrations, bigger picture frustrations might boil over and become referee frustrations is all part of managing these games.

It just remains for me to say many congratulations on a wonderful career that you can look back on with a great deal of pride.  But I can’t really finish by saying ‘it’s been nice knowing you’ because obviously there is a lot more to come, isn’t there Craig?

Yes, thanks a lot David. I’ve loved my time in international rugby and international refereeing, and you are right.  What I am thrilled about with the (new) position is that I am still involved in rugby, I am still involved in a game that I am passionate about, and I will still be running about there on the 7s field but also contributing in a different way to the development of referees and I am so excited about the fact, and although it is goodbye to 15s rugby, I am still involved in the game I love, and I will still be around, so I look forward to the future and what that holds.