On Sunday, the final of the Rugby World Cup will be played in Auckland, New Zealand. The tournament in this rugby crazy nation has been a great success so far, and the climax is yet to come as the “All Blacks” from the host country made it to the final where they are the favorites to win the title.
Their opponents from France have not been expected to be there by most experts prior to the tournament and they even lost two games on their road to the final, one against Tonga (14-19), the other being a heavy 17-37 defeat against, guess what, New Zealand. And even in their semi final against Wales, they played not quite convincing: Wales took the lead early and looked like the stronger team when their captain Sam Warburton saw a red card not even 20 minutes into the game. Despite being one player more for the remaining three quarters of the game, France did not manage to score a try and only won narrowly by 9 points to 8, with Wales kicking one kick just inches short and another on hitting the bar.
Obviously, the red card was decisive. And for those of you that haven’t seen the match last weekend or maybe aren’t too much into Rugby anyway: It was heavily controversial. Warburton received it for a dangerous dip tackle on Vincent Clerc, but other similar tackles during the tournament did not lead to red cards. However, if you go strictly by the rule book, a red card can be shown for the kind of foul Warburton committed.
This leads to a discussion that can be heard in nearly all kinds of sports involving a referee: The sensitivity of the refs. Up to the red card situation, the match had been hard but fair and Warburton is all but an unfair player. It was early in the game and no one would have complained about a yellow card. So go by the rule book or take a decision that everybody would agree on and that would allow for a high quality rest of the match with the stronger team winning?
Referee Alain Rolland decided to go by the rule book.
Wait a minute, what was his name? Alain Rolland? That sounds pretty French for a referee in a match involving France! And for a good reason: Rolland, a mortgage broker from Ireland, has a French father, parts of family still live in France and he speaks French fluently.
Honestly, I cannot imagine seeing a referee with a French father to call a soccer World Cup semi final involving France. In rugby it’s possible. It’s a hard game, but one where respect and fairness are highly valued. Also, the rugby world is a lot smaller than e.g. soccer, so for finding top quality referees you don’t have too much choice of countries. And Rolland is clearly one of the best refs in the world – even though nowadays there are some different opinions in Wales (Rolland even received death threats).
So was it wrong to nominate Rolland for this game? That’s an interesting question which I will try to answer in a way that not only refers to rugby:
Rolland has not done any mistake. By the rule book he did the right call. The International Rugby Board (IRB) referee manager Paddy O’Brien even stated they were “delighted” with Rolland’s performances in the semi final.
Still, other referees during the tournament did not hide behind the rule book. I believe there’s a reason why Rolland did. Just imagine you were in his shoes. When the game starts you would believe that all Wales was expecting you to favor France with your decisions. However, if a controversial decision would be called against France, everybody in France would complain that you made this call against France only to explicitly demonstrate that you were not favoring France. Whatever you do, it will be used against you.
These kinds of situations do not allow for any sensitivity, they lead to people trying to protect themselves by sticking strictly to the rule book. In sports as well as in business.
Alain Rolland is an expert. He speaks the language of both teams in that semi final fluently. He has both a Celtic and a French influence. He has been a rugby player himself (three caps for Ireland). Who could have been better suited?
Anyone could have.
In situations in which sensitivity and creativity are vital to mediate between two sides, it doesn’t always pay to have someone in place who has strong links to both sides and/or a lot of knowledge of all details. Mediators or moderators can quickly get caught up in a sandwich position. Each side will always believe that the ties with the other side would be stronger, mistrust and trying to take influence result from it. In this climate, the mediator can’t move and sticks to the book to play it safe and avoid any suspicion. Just like Rolland did.
The problem is that playing it safe often does not yield the best possible results.
When mediating between two sides, it doesn’t take an expert. There are enough experts on both sides to get the facts straight. It takes someone who is free to suggest untapped approaches, someone who is free to be sensitive, someone who is by no means suspicious. If you look for this someone, don’t look on either of the two sides or even close to them. Find someone who has room to move.
On Sunday, the referee in the final will come from South Africa. And Rolland? He will be one of the two touch judges. The other one is from … Wales.