Bloody referee! Jonathan Kaplan, 42, isn’t sure how many times he’s heard that admonition, but he doesn’t let it bother him too much.
If he did, he wouldn’t have refereed his 47th Test match last weekend (France v Argentina), which gave him the world record.
Clinton Van Der Berg writes for the Sunday Times that given the game’s politics and the extraordinary pressure referees are put under, it is testament to his excellence and thick skin that he’s made it this far.
Last week he was in France, this week he was in Ireland and next week he will be in Wales for the big one: champions of the southern hemisphere against champions of the north. You’d think he would be fretting at the prospect, but Kaplan learned long ago how to calm jangling nerves.
“Come to terms with your own fallibility and prepare well,” he says. “Accuracy is everything.”
He cherishes the record, saying it had been one of his goals when he realised he was “in the ballpark”. Now, he wants to referee 1000 games in all. He’s sitting on a staggering 863, of which 297 have been first-class matches. Given his work ethic, it shouldn’t be long.
His knees are showing signs of wear and tear and it’s sometimes harder to get up in the mornings, but Kaplan’s enthusiasm is boundless. He loves the game and its characters.
He is that rare sort of official who lays down the law, but is largely empathetic; he prefers to manage a game rather than police it. And that’s why he’s popular among players and coaches.
Kaplan has blown the whistle on every major player, although three in particular stand out. The first is Andrew Mehrtens. “Pure genius,” he says.
The second is Martin Johnson. “Unbelievable presence, very passionate.”
The other is George Gregan. “He pushed the boundaries in a special way. He got on everyone’s tits, but he was one of the greatest ever.”
The quaint nature of refereeing means that this year Kaplan has refereed school matches, major internationals and everything in between (including the Currie Cup final). Because he’s had to get a handle on the dreaded ELVs, he’s had to flit between a heap of changing laws in a few months.
It’s a recipe for madness, but Kaplan accepts the rationale behind the experiments.
“It’s healthy not to mess with the game’s fundamentals, but the game must be made easier for stake holders,” he reasons. “The progressive nature of the game is good, whether we like it or not.”
Most referees would be satisfied to have controlled a single epic in their career. Kaplan has had a number: top of his list — Australia against New Zealand in 2000 — is a match that would contend for the greatest game ever. “In terms of the product and what was at stake, it was brilliant,” he says of his seventh Test match.
Indeed, the match in Wellington blended drama and atmosphere with the two best teams in the world.
Then there was last year’s World Cup semifinal between France and England — “just insane,” he says — and also the Lions’ Tests against Australia and New Zealand.
Finally, he mentions this year’s Bledisloe Cup fixture for the reasons you hope he does. “It had everything — power, drama, aggression and skill — and it tested me as a referee. That’s what you want, that’s what you hope for.”
He takes his responsibilities seriously, reasoning that the decisions he makes often dictate a nation’s state of mind. “The art of the job isn’t to know the laws,” he says, “but how and when to apply them. It can be very subtle.”
A number of goals remain. The 2011 World Cup is a strong beacon, as is the final itself. In between will be a raft of fixtures that will continue to test his skills and feel for the game. As ever, Kaplan will be on duty, ready for the call.
“It’s been a good life. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”Tweet