More vigilant referees, assisted by sharper-eyed touch judges with increased powers, would do something to cure the offside disease

In 1996, I hope we shall see referees make a greater effort to eliminate, or at least contain, the most virulent of the modern game's diseases. I mean persistent and deliberate offside, chiefly, though by no means exclusively, by back-row forwards. I do not mean the kind of play which saw Cambridge erroneously awarded a penalty try in last month's University match. This witnessed numerous Oxford players advancing in an attempt to prevent Cambridge scoring in the corner.

It may well be that, as the referee claimed afterwards in an attempt to justify himself, Oxford had been warned several times for persistent infringement in this regard. This does not mean that a penalty try can be awarded as a sort of extra punishment, like exemplary damages in the libel courts. A try must be probable - and, in view of Cambridge's consistent inability to catch the ball during the course of the afternoon, a try was in the highest degree unlikely.

Here, by the way, is a problem of refereeing logic which I have never seen addressed before. In judging the probability of a score, does he take into account the try-scoring abilities of the attacking side? If he does, New Zealand, say, must be judged more likely to score than England if the defensive illegality occurs (as it did in the University match) in the corner, close to the line. My own view is that he should arrive at a general kind of probability of what a reasonably competent team might be expected to accomplish in the circumstances.

Very rarely, however, will a penalty try be the correct refereeing response to persistent offside. It was certainly not so at Twickenham in December.

Moreover, the curse of the game today is not the defending side advancing too far. Indeed, I would argue that, in Five Nations matches particularly, defending threequarters are penalised too severely for encroaching, with a gift of three points to the attacking side. In these circumstances, the referee should wave the players back, as the (in refereeing terms) much-missed Clive Norling used to do, as if he were conducting an orchestra.

Additionally, he should receive more help from the touch-judges. There is no case for giving them fewer powers in club than in international matches, which is the present position. Their powers should not only be made uniform but also be increased all round. In this respect, Premier and First Division football is about 30 years ahead of the Courage league.

The general quality of the touch-judges should be increased as well. "Running the line," as it tends to be called in England, should no longer be a privilege or a perk doled out to some committee man for long service and good conduct. Many of these officials that I see going about their touchline tasks week in and week out seem at least as old as I am, and almost as unfit. Either that, they are young, athletic and more or less incompetent.

There was one of the latter category at The Stoop the other day, who did not possess a flag. He did not even compromise with an old duster, or something of that description. He merely stuck one arm in the air and waved it about hopefully.

More vigilant referees, assisted by sharper-eyed touch judges with increased powers (who in number should perhaps be increased from two to four), would do something to cure the offside disease. This, as I say, is not primarily a matter of encroaching defending backs but, chiefly, of forwards who try to play as much of the game as they can in an offside position.

New Zealand have long specialised in this technique. And when John Jeffrey, in his commentating capacity, said something a few months ago which annoyed the English, the response was to say that he and Finlay Calder had spent virtually their entire international careers in an offside position.

This was more or less true. But if the worst you can possibly say about a former international back-row forward is that he spent much of his life offside, then he must be an exemplary character in other respects. In any case, why was nothing done about it at the time? And why is nothing done about Jeffrey's successors today?

Here are some other hopes: that referees will stop being indulgent to forward passes merely because one of them has resulted in a flashy try in the corner - and that a try will not be awarded unless downward pressure has been applied. Alternatively, the laws might be amended to take account of present reality: "A try shall be awarded if the ball is tapped down from a great height. In this case, the laws relating to forward passes and knock-ons shall not apply."

And a Happy New Year to you all.

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