"People want a flowing game": Gardner on reffing a Super final, TMOs and red cards

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

It’s one of the high points of his career but Angus Gardner would love nothing more than if the Super Rugby final came and went without people remembering he was ever there.

Along with Wallabies flanker Pete Samu, the 33-year-old referee will be one of two Australians on the field when the Crusaders take on the Lions in the Super Rugby decider in Christchurch.

With 15 Tests under his belt, Gardner has progressed past his former status as rising star of the whistleblowing ranks but the final will still be a significant milestone for the Sydneysider - and Australian refereeing in general.

The last Aussie to handle the Super Rugby decider was Wayne Erickson way back in the competition’s inaugural season of 1996, when the Blues beat the Sharks.

The fact SANZAR used neutral referees for many years may have worked against more appointments but no Aussie had been deemed worthy since 2008, when the organisation moved to merit-based system. 

Until Gardner. 

“To do these games is a massive honour really,” Gardner told RUGBY.com.au.

“You just pinch yourself and think wow, I am involved at the important part of the tournament with great players and it’s just a massive honour really. It’s very humbling.

“‘Gus’ (Erickson) and his era really led the way as far as refereeing went, back in the day. It has been a while between drinks but we’ve got great young guys coming through and that is a testament to the program we have got with refereeing in Australia and the hard work put in there.”

Gardner’s appointment is a firm endorsement by SANZAAR for the Australian after time in the spotlight in June, when his controversial decision to red card Frenchman Benjamin Fall early in the second Test against New Zealand was later deemed “wrong” by the World Rugby-appointed indepedennt judiciary.

But Gardner appeared to be the right ref for the right time for SANZAAR after the organisation recently responded publicly to fans’ frustrations with excessive TMO use.

After reaching a peak of ridiculousness with Sunwolves' flanker Ed Quirk sent off for a "love tap" punch against the Reds, SANZAAR boss Andy Marinos issued a release saying the TMO protocol was “clearly not working” and in need of official change by World Rugby.

A few days later Gardner reffed the change anyway with an instinctive, old-school performance in the Waratahs-Highlanders quarter-final, and he'd done much the same thing a week earlier in the Tahs-Brumbies game. Compared to many his season, both matches flowed and fan feedback was positive.

Gardner says referees were pleased to get the public backing of SANZAAR that the TMO should be only called upon “for the big ticket items”.

“The influence of the TMOs, it is kind of driven on a case-by-case basis, and it is really the responsibility of the on-field referee to lead in terms of the referral process and what we actually want to have a look at,” he said.

“I don’t think too much changed, to be fair, for me (in the Waratahs-Highlanders game). 

“It was good having SANZAAR come out and support that we are really only looking for the big ticket items. To be fair, at finals time the fans and people watching the game, we don’t want the game slowed down. 

“They have come to see a flowing game and I suppose that’s where us as referees want to fit in, really; making sure we are getting the things that matter in the game and not bogging the game down unneccesarily for minor things that happen as part of the game, and that people accept as part of the game.”

Gardner, who moved into refereeing as a teenager after being diagnosed with diagnosed with Scheuremann's Disease (a hereditary disc condition), carries no baggage from the June All Blacks-France series and the red-card reversal by the judicial panel.

“I think when people are aware we are independent of each other and we do different jobs, it makes it easier to put in perspective,” Gardner said. 

“We have to make a decision out there with five or six camera angles, in the heat of the moment, and the judiciary have 30-plus camera angles in a completely different environment to review it. 

“To be fair, the challenge in the air in that Test match, it’s an area of the game that is so dynamic and there are so many factors and mitigating factors that go into those things.

“Sometimes as referees we just have to make a call on the field with what we see and we can’t worry about if the judiciary will have a different opinion.”

Gardner hopes there is no need for TMO intervention or the judiciary in the Super Rugby final, and that his sole job will be to facilitate a cracking game of footy.

But don’t mistake that desire for a soft touch. Sometimes a ref is needed to make sure the playing field stays level.

“People are coming to see the players and to see the teams play. I suppose you see your role as a facilitator and hopefully the teams play in a manner that enables you to do just do that,” Gardner said.

“Obviously, there are games and have been games in the past where the teams haven’t neccesarily come to play so you do have to get in there and make some calls. 

“But mate, for me to not be in the spotlight at all and no-one mention my name, that’d be ideal.”