The tournament has given players a much clearer idea of what is expected of them in the future. But there is another vital group who are suddenly having to cope with new pressures - referees.
From what I've seen so far, I think they've done quite well. Not only have they had new laws to impose this season, the game is much faster and they are suddenly dealing with clubs from different rugby cultures. Apart from international duty, most referees are not accustomed to officiating in competitive matches between clubs from other countries.
Even within the UK you can soon tell the difference in interpretation between referees from the home countries. But when you include the French and other European referees we are talking about big gaps in how the game is approached.
The French can be the most difficult to control and we had some examples last weekend when at least three of them were sent off. I'm not knocking them, despite their nasty habits of giving you love-bites or grabbing sensitive parts. On their day, at club or international level, I prefer to watch the French play than any other country in the world. But they are very tough and extremely volatile and although they concede penalties as a result they have confidence in their ability to score more tries than you can score penalties.
They are not going to change and since their refs let them get away with murder it makes matters very difficult for a foreign referee. But the players can have even more problems adjusting. A Scottish ref will have different priorities to an Irish ref. A Welsh ref will read a game differently to one from England and so on. Sometimes you feel they've printed separate rules for each of them. The English refs, for instance, seem partial to awarding penalty tries far more frequently than the others.
Players can live with these differences as long as referees are consistent and, having made their intentions clear, stick to their guns and treat each side the same. The best referee I've encountered on the field this season was English. I won't mention his name in case he thinks I'm crawling but his strength was that he kept talking to us, warning us when we infringed and generally keeping the game bubbling along. He left no doubt that he was in charge and I think every player on the field felt more comfortable because he obviously knew what was going on.
I tend to talk a lot to the referee during play. Since I speak to everyone else on the field, there's no reason to leave him out. But I take the trouble to find out his name and be friendly. It is not an attempt to gain an advantage but to set up a line of communication. A referee is as much a part of the game as any player, probably more so, and is as important as the ball or the goal-posts. We're all in it together and as pressure grows so does the need for a little mutual respect.
There is no reason why you shouldn't let him know if you disagree with him, but you should do it politely. In one game this season we were getting so many penalties against us, I said to the ref as we lined up for the second half: "I expect over the course of the whole game the penalty count will even up." He didn't reply but I fancy we got more penalties in the second half. We still lost.
The best games come from an amalgamation of two good teams and a good referee, so it is in everyone's interests to treat each other with respect. If you make the referee feel isolated he is going to act in an aloof manner. They should be kept off their high horses because once they get up there, the game has gone.
It is important to recognise the problems referees have in adapting and to realise that they've got to be strict. It is in our interests that they succeed in being in control. Unless the referees get it right, it is very difficult to provide the exciting rugby we all want to deliver.Reuse content