Rugby: The grey men in middle

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Anyone who watches rugby week in and week out will learn quite soon that the most important person in the afternoon's proceedings is the referee. He can be having a good or bad match. He may be either whistle-happy or prepared to let the game flo w. He has his likes and dislikes, some things which he is prepared to allow and others on which he comes down as if he were levelling paving stones. He is, in short, human, flesh and blood; only too much so, some would say.

A few referees become "personalities", their views sought after, their characters the subject of learned analysis in clubhouses up and down the land. These figures are now thin on the ground. The exuberant men have gone.

Gwynne Walters is dead. Roger Quittenten, whom every Welshman loved to hate, has retired, at any rate from the international field. Clive Norling was considered "too fat" to referee in the first World Cup, and now appears as a commentator. Fred Howard, perhaps the most respected English referee of recent times, has been marginalised, his interests - unaccountably - considered too numerous by the authorities for him to be an international referee.

This is a pity. Rugby has never been more in need of dominating referees. Because the players are fitter, the game has become faster and, because they are bigger, it has become more dangerous. The leagues, the televised Five Nations' Championship, above all the World Cup, have transformed it. The administrators' response seems to have been to cut referees down to size: to eliminate the individual in favour of the uniform.

In a way this is understandable. As the laws of the game are (and always have been) complicated, it is a good thing to try to secure a standard interpretation of them. But it is a regrettable consequence if referees with a bit of character are going to be forced out. Quittenten and Norling, in their different ways, added something to international rugby; just as H D ("Dickie") Bird does to Test cricket.

There is another consideration, of wider application than to the international game. Rugby union referees, far from being too dominating, are not nearly dominating enough. Their league counterparts are figures of greater authority.

The reason may be partly that the laws of the league game are simpler, with no chance of dispute about correct behaviour at line-out, ruck or maul, and with the scrum reduced to a pointless formality. Or it may be partly that the "sin-bin" allows for a half-way position between a warning and an outright sending-off. Whatever the reason, league players do not dispute with the referee as union players do.

Here, however, there is an area which needs clearing up. When does a question amount to disputing the referee's decision and when to seeking an explanation? There was an example of this when Wales played South Africa at Cardiff. Gareth Llewellyn asked the French referee for an explanation and was penalised further, enabling the South Africans to kick a goal. When Francois Pienaar did the same he was rewarded not with a penalty against him but with what one must assume was a civil explanation.

There are other aspects of play where I should like referees not so much to unify their interpretations as simply to apply the laws which exist. One concerns the try. In 1954, when England played Wales at Twickenham, there was great dispute about whetherGwyn Rowlands, the Welsh left wing, had or had not truly scored the try which was credited to him. He was alleged to have tapped the ball down rather than applied downward pressure.

The law remains the same today. But today there would be no such controversy. Tries are now automatically given when the ball is bouncing about somewhere behind the try-line and a member of the attacking side manages to get a hand to it when it is a couple of feet off the ground.

Another area is the set scrum. This is going the same way as the league scrum referred to above. A crooked feed is regarded as normal.

But the most worrying area of all concerns offside. No 6 forwards in particular now find it profitable to spend an entire afternoon in an offside position, waiting for something to turn up, as it usually does. And the referees do nothing.