My absence from The Stoop was a solitary protest

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The Independent Online
On Saturday, the obvious attraction in London was Harlequins and Leicester at The Stoop. I decided to forgo it and take myself off instead to Old Deer Park to see London Welsh play Richmond in the Pilkington Cup.

I had several reasons for this course of action. The 2.05 kick-off did not particularly suit my movements but, moreover, I do not see why the Courage First Division clubs should be prepared to abase themselves before Rupert Murdoch to the extent of starting one of their matches early simply for the convenience of Sky Television.

Indeed, I am told that Sky is shortly to insist on a nine-minute break at half-time to allow advertisements to be shown. This will presumably mean that the players will have to return to their dressing-rooms, as they do in football. Television really will have taken over rugby union.

So my absence from The Stoop was a kind of solitary and silent protest. I also wanted to watch a different sort of rugby for a change. For there is no doubt about it, there is something tedious about the Courage First Division. The competition is dominated by four clubs - Bath, Harlequins, Leicester and Wasps - with Bristol coming up on the blind side, and Paul Turner of Sale the most popular boy in the school.

Why, I hear you ask, did Turner win only three Welsh caps, one of them as a replacement, and that was six seasons ago? The reason is that he played for Newbridge, rather than for Cardiff, Llanelli or Swansea, and then flitted about like a flying Welshman.

London Welsh were one of those clubs with whom Turner briefly sojourned. On Saturday, it was quite like old times. The stand was full, "Calon Lan" was sung, the referee was abused in traditional fashion and Welsh duly won 27-12. They won in some style too. The handling put to shame all the First Division clubs I have seen this season, with the possible exception of Bath.

Why is it, I have wondered, Saturday after Saturday, in this lovely, golden autumn - no rain, no snow - that players who are in or near the England squad cannot perform the most fundamental movement in rugby football, which is to give and take a pass?

There was an example in the Harlequins-Leicester match, which I saw on Rugby Special. Will Carling passed the ball to Daren O'Leary somewhere just above or behind O'Leary's left shoulder, when his progress to the line was unimpeded. Now Carling should never have delivered such a rotten pass. But at the same time a wing with international pretensions such as O'Leary should have been able to take it somehow.

This brings me to an English selection for the South African match which has aroused surprisingly little comment: that of Damian Hopley in place of the injured Tony Underwood. Jack Rowell and previous England selectors seemed determined to play him on the wing, as they also do Ian Hunter. But Hopley is a centre, while Hunter is a full-back.

There are three wings from Bath alone - Audley Lumsden, Adedayo Adebayo and Jon Sleightholme - any one of whom could have filled Underwood's position with distinction, even though the last two are happier on the left wing.

But the unluckiest player of all is surely Underwood's Leicester colleague, Steve Hackney, who has just won the Rugby Special "Try of the Month" competition twice in succession - for what that may be worth - and is, in the opinion of many good judges, Underwood's superior as a player.

I have already mentioned handling as one area where the First Division fails to come up to standard. That is the fault of the players and coaches. But there is another, more serious aspect of the modern game where, although the players are certainly blameworthy, the chief culprits are the referees: the constant, cynical abuse of the offside laws, mainly by back-row forwards. Richmond were flagrantly guilty of this practice last Saturday. The referee did little to stop the abuse.

Yet another, although perhaps less serious, cause for concern is the lack of consistency in the referees' application of the advantage law. The late Reginald Paget, a leading QC, once told me that the secret of being a successful barrister was to know your judges - be familiar with their likes and dislikes, their funny little ways. Today, it seems, the secret of being a successful rugby player is increasingly to know your referees.