New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe takes a pragmatic view of the criticism he faced following his performance with the whistle in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals.
In particular, French captain Antoine Dupont made his feelings known following his side’s one-point loss at the hands of the Springboks – he thought O’Keeffe made far too many mistakes.
“There’s a lot of frustration and disappointment. If we look again at some of the decisions maybe there will be even more. I don’t want to sound like a bitter person who complains about the refereeing, but I’m not sure the refereeing was at the highest level tonight,” Dupont said.
What followed was an outcry from French rugby fans – both those attending the World Cup who booed when O’Keeffe was mentioned, and the inevitable keyboard warriors who took anonymously to social media to vent their displeasure.
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Speaking with ZB’s Newstalk Jason Pine, O’Keeffe acknowledged the intensity of the situation and understood how the French supporters and players must have felt.
“I sort of took it on the chin really, didn’t I? I understood the situation, the environment. The host nation, a team that was up there either one or two in the world, expected to win, expected to make it to the final lost a one-point quarter final. A game of rugby is definitely gray in terms of some of the decisions that you make, we’re never perfect as referees.”
O’Keeffe said he knew before the match that either way it went he and his team were likely to cop some heat.
“Leading in to the game I knew there was going to be pressure. I knew that depending on how either team lost there was going to be a focus or a spotlight on the refereeing team and because I was in the middle, myself. I just had to take that and really review my game properly.
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“A lot of that was emotional, I understand. They had a big focus on trying to go really deep into that tournament and it would have been to be able to lose in those circumstances by one point and that’s the role of the referee, we’re never going to be congratulated after the game but if that’s our expectation as a referee I think we’re in the wrong business.”
In dealing with the fallout following France’s exit from the tournament, O’Keeffe doesn’t blame French fans for their reaction and says the next two weeks in Paris were a learning experience for him.
“I took a lot out of it in terms of how I normally review myself, my game. Obviously there was a lot of continued criticism, someone who’s respected so much like Anton Dupont is, the whole country sort of follows his lead.
“I just had to understand what the environment was, what the situation was. It was a little bit uncomfortable the next two weeks in France, in Paris being in public and that but it was an experience that has made me stronger as a referee and has allowed me to go to another level in terms of what I want to add to the game.”
The 38-test referee says he feels it is a collective effort that is what is required to shake off the negative aspects that surround rugby union in order for the game to grow.
“If you look at the key stakeholders in a game; players are one, coaches are one, spectators and referees and I think we all need to be working together as a team to grow the sport, the game that we love.
“Times will change, both sides will look back on that experience and I know that we can do things differently and I hope that next time I referee France in the future, whether it’s away or at home we can just get back to enjoying the spectacle .”