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Law discussion: Stay away from lightning, boys

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For the second Saturday in a row, a top rugby match in South Africa was stopped because of the weather.

By Paul Dobson, Moonsport

On both occasions, it was a Currie Cup match and on each occasion, the Golden Lions were playing, firstly in Durban, then in Johannesburg. On both occasions, the match was resumed.

Rain stops cricket, not rugby, you may believe. And, you say, who gives the referee the right to stop a match.

Law 5.75.7 Other time regulations
(d) The referee has the power to end the match at any time if the referee believes that play should not continue because it would be dangerous.

In the match in Durban between the Sharks and the Golden Lions, the Sharks kicked a penalty out after 20 minutes in the match, when the referee was alerted to consult the ground's security officer, who told him that the SA Weather Bureau had said that the lightning was moving dangerously close to KINGS Park. The referee then informed the managers and the players, saying: "The distance between lightning and thunder has become too short and so we have to suspend the match until it's safe again to play.

"If at any stage it's safe, we'll make the decision." It did become safe and the match was resumed.

In Johannesburg, shortly before half in the match between the Golden Lions and Western Province, the rain was pouring down just before half-time and thunder rumbled. The rain became hailstones large enough to hurt and as a scrum was being formed the referee told the players to head for cover, which they did, which was just as well as the lightning was then close. The scrum was set later when it was safe to play.

In both cases, the referee acted correctly - within law and common sense.

"The distance between lightning and thunder has become too short."

That is an old story that South African mothers told their children - count the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunderclap and you will know how close the storm is. When that distance grew short in Durban it meant that the storm was right there and off the players went.

After all, lightning can kill. In fact, two Springboks have been killed by lightning. And once a Test match was called off because of lightning.

World Rugby takes lightning seriously and has a protocol on the matter.

Amongst other things, it says: "At any level of Rugby, from grassroots, all the way up to the professional game, understanding the dangers of lightning and the proper precautions to take will assist in minimising incidents from lightning strikes. The actions that should be taken, when there is a threat of a lightning strike, will depend on the level of information available to event/competition organisers or match officials."

The protocol explains the time between flash and clap: "When the lightning strike is within six miles of the venue, it is recommended that players are removed from the pitch. The speed of sound through air is approximately 0.2 miles per second, so for every 5 seconds of time between the lightning flash and the associated thunderclap, the strike is one mile away. The approximate distance (in miles) can be calculated by counting the time (in seconds) between the two events and dividing it by five. Recommended safe distances from the lightning event is six miles. [The imperial mile = 1,6 km]

"Shelter should be sought when there is 30 seconds or less between the flash and the associated thunderclap."

The protocol recommends consultation with weather services: "Live data: in circumstances, where live data is available from local meteorological services along with advice from an expert, this data should be used to assist in the decision about whether to allow the event/match to commence, continue or be abandoned.

"Communication with local weather services or tracking of weather alerts should be established in advance of any event."

All of this suggests that what happened in Durban and Johannesburg was correct in every respect.

The two Springboks?

Both played in 1903, the year South Africa first one a Test series. One was the fullback Charlie Jones, the other the lock John Botha.

Charlie Jones, born in Kimberley, went up to the mines, a great all-round sportsman. Apart from playing rugby for South Africa he held South African sprint records and played hockey for Transvaal. Nor was that all, for he was a robust tenor, trained by Professor Cav L Margottini of Rome.

He was an accountant and the assistant secretary of Geldenhuys Estate & General Mining Company on Elandsfontein which is now Bedfordview. He was playing golf on the estate when struck by lightning and killed.

John Botha - really Johannes Botha - was born in Cape Town, the youngest of eight children, and educated at Sea Point Boys' High. He was a big man and the story goes that Fairy Heatlie and his two friends who were helping him to select the team for the decisive third test in 1903, Biddy Anderson and Percy Jones, were having tea in the Café Royal in Cape Town when Botha walked in.

They said that he was the sort of big man needed for the forwards to play against the British. They asked him if he played rugby and then chose him. Selection was less scientific in those days but it worked. Botha was on his farm Vogelstruisfontein in the Standerton District when he was killed by a lightning bolt. Like Jones, he was keen on music - a clarinettist in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra.

The stopped Test?

In 1991 referee Albert Adams, a South African. called off a Test match between the USA and France three minutes into the second half when lightning struck the electronic scoreboard at the ground in Colorado Springs where lightning is a frequent danger.  

In South Africa, it is a rare that weather stops rugby, though in 1964 all rugby was cancelled in Johannesburg in June after two days of heavy snowfalls.

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