SA refs ready to roll
Being put through tough fitness tests in the searing heat of the bushveld at their annual planning camp in the North West province was nothing compared to the heat South Africa's top referees have to endure when they officiate a rugby match.
It is the meticulous planning, preparation and hard work of these referees that contribute to South Africa's referees consistently being ranked among the best in the world.
SA Rugby Union (Saru) general manager of referees Andre Watson said on Tuesday that every referee on the various panels had passed their fitness tests on Monday with flying colours.
"I'm extremely pleased with the results of the fitness tests," said Watson.
"Our referees have worked very hard during the off-season and every one of them passed their fitness tests, of which the standard is quite high. This year, our referees are probably the fittest that they have ever been."
Apart from the fitness tests, the referees will be tested on the laws of the game, as well as receive valuable input from Saru high performance manager Rassie Erasmus, as well as two former Test props, Pieter de Villiers and Balie Swart.
"The scrums have become a contentious area of the game and by bringing in Pieter and Balie, we're hoping to ensure that our referees will be properly prepared to make the right calls at scrum time this season," Watson said.
The referees would receive practical lessons from the experts as they scrum against each other on Wednesday.
"Pieter and Balie have explained to the referees the finer mechanics of the front rows at the scrums," he said.
"We have put in a lot of work to ensure this area of the game is refereed consistently across all levels."
With the 2013 Super Rugby kick-off looming, it was also an opportunity for the match officials to get to grips with the 11 law trials that will be implemented at the start of the season.
Four of the laws are seen as cosmetic changes while the other seven could have a greater impact on the game.
The four-step engagement call has been shortened in senior rugby from "crouch-touch-pause-engage" to "crouch-touch-set", which Watson believed would have the greatest influence of all the changes early on in the season.
He said in the Northern Hemisphere -- where this rule variation was trialed first -- the resets at the scrums initially increased because of teething problems but eventually went down.
Watson said he expected the same to happen during this year's Super Rugby.
The removal of the spoken "pause" does not take away the actual pause, as the two front rows are expected to remain stationary before engaging on the "set" call.
Another change was that of conversion kicks, which stipulated that a kick needed to be taken within 90 seconds of scoring a try.
"There are an average of five tries in a Super Rugby match and we've worked out the amount of time wasted comes to seven to eight minutes of running time, which is almost 10 minutes of a match," he said.
Watson said the rule requiring the ball be cleared from the ruck within five seconds of it being available concerned some people.
He, however, believed the critics would by March see that their worries were unwarranted.
When the ball becomes available at a ruck, the referee will call "use it" and the scrumhalf then has five seconds to clear the ball by passing or running it.
The rule is designed to speed up play by not allowing the team in possession to slow it down, and giving the defenders less time to set up their defensive structures, and the attackers the opportunity to be more creative.
Another addition is that the non-offending team may now take a quick throw-in from anywhere between their corner post and where the lineout would take place.
This year's Super Rugby will also see additional powers for television match officials which included identifying foul play, and clear and obvious infringements in the last two phases before a try is scored.
This would, however, not be new to South African supporters as this was tried during last year's Currie Cup competition.