You might not be able to see, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a great rugby union referee.
That’s the consensus, anyway, in light of Saturday’s thrilling Rugby Championship game between New Zealand and South Africa. The much-hyped showdown in Auckland was officiated by Romain Poite, a highly-regarded French referee who, incidentally, doesn’t have eyes.
The 38-year-old Frenchman is among a new generation of referees who were born with vacant ocular orbits. While players and fans were skeptical when eyeless referees were first ushered in by the International Rugby Board (IRB) a few years ago, eyeless referees are quickly becoming commonplace — so commonplace, in fact, that many fans don’t know which refs have eyes and which don’t.
Poite, who has been a referee in many high-profile tournaments — including the 2007 World Cup — flaunts his condition. Unlike many of his famous eyeless peers, such as Bryce Lawrence and Stuart Dickinson, he never opted for ocular prosthetics.
“Why get glass eyes?” Poite said. “So others will believe I can see? What’s the point? The fact is, I am blind.”
While some critics worried that eyeless referees would make poor calls, studies show there is almost no disparity in rates of judging error between the eyeless and their seeing counterparts.
“Eyeless referees are actually better,” said Mark Stanton, a spokesman for the IRB. “Not only do they have a heightened sense of hearing, which allows them to perceive movement you and I cannot even see, frequently they possess a ‘sixth sense.’ They can ‘feel’ when a foul has been committed. They say it’s a sort of tickling in their noses.”
The future for eyeless rugby referees looks bright, if Poite’s performance on Saturday is any indication. Even though cameras were not fast enough to capture a foul that occurred during the match, Poite sensed it. The Springboks’ Bismarck du Plessis had improperly tackled New Zealand’s Dan Carter. Poite penalized Du Plessis with a yellow card, which, added to another yellow card later on, meant that South Africa’s star hooker was sent off the pitch. Many commentators say Poite’s keen judgement helped tip the match in New Zealand’s favour.
“If the eyeless Poite hadn’t been the referee, the Springboks might have gone on to steal a win,” Stanton said. “And can you imagine the damage that would have done to the reputation of the sport?”
Fans are so impressed with Poite’s performance, in fact, that a Facebook petition has been created asking the IRB to make sure that Romain Poite “officiate every important test match — in the years to come, and forever.”
“I’m flattered, but no, no, no,” Poite said about the petition, averting his empty gaze to the ground. “I can’t see the point in that.”