Howard's `free spirit' unwanted : RUGBY UNION

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Hardly had he begun in his position as a national referees' coach than Fred Howard, who officiated at more international matches than any other Englishman, finds the Rugby Football Union no longer wants its best-known referee.

Howard refereed 20 Tests from 1984 to 1992, experience one might have thought the RFU would be bound to exploit. Hence his appointment, along with the lower-profile Garth Cromwell, Geraint Davies and George Seddon, at the start of the season to look after England's top 10 referees.

A letter from Steve Griffiths, the union's referees' development officer, enigmatically tells him he has "a free and challenging spirit which would be better expressed outside the formal coaching structure". Howard takes this to be a reference to his questioning monthly column on the laws and refereeing in Rugby News.

His extra-curricular activities also include verifying computerised Test-match statistics, as well as acting as a selector for the North divisional team this season.

"I'm disappointed they see it this way," Howard said. "It's rather typical of what happens to anyone who rocks the boat. They seemed to want me to focus completely on the referees rather than do anything else. But I've enjoyed looking at the game from a different angle and more referees should be doing it."

Howard's uneasy relationship with the RFU was most graphically demonstrated when he was dropped from the international panel two years ago in favour of David Matthews. Matthews was never allocated a Test, and this season has sunk without trace.

Howard subsequently retired, and in April had a knee reconstruction followed by a visit to South Africa at the invitation of Louis Luyt, president of the South African union.

As it coincided with England's tour there, it was another example of the freelance activity to which the RFU has evidently taken exception.

Rugby union, pages 28 and 29