Rugby Union: Fleming flourishes the velvet glove

Tim Glover admires the approach of a referee who struck the right note
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The Independent Online
Lawrence Dallaglio deservedly won it, and there would have been sound arguments for David Rees or Ian Jones doing so instead, but in the discussions about who to make man of the match somebody wearing a green jersey deserved a few votes.

Jim Fleming's handling of yesterday's match played no small part in contributing to its epic status. In the professional game, referees do not have to leave the field for stitches to a head wound, but their brains still take a battering. England had attempted to gain a psychological edge with former international players accusing the All Blacks of, among other things, "conning" referees.

Thus Fleming went into this momentous match mindful that he would have to watch his Ps and Qs or risk being pilloried by marksmen hunting scapegoats. For the first time in a long time you will not hear somebody from either corner accuse the referee of being born out of wedlock or needing a guide- dog.

Fleming was in total control, giving a maestro's performance with the whistle. It is the mark of a good referee of how seldom he is noticed and yesterday the Scotsman stood to one side and let the players play, the game flow.

"It is not up to me or the touch judges to decide how a game will be played," Fleming said. "It's the player's game. If they want to play the ball and run with the ball, I am more than happy to let them do so."

It was his 29th international and probably his best. He made his Test debut refereeing Ireland versus England in Dublin in 1985 and has been involved in all three World Cup tournaments. In terms of experience he is second only to the Welshman Derek Bevan.

"The only way I will get to be No 1," the Edinburgh-based chartered surveyor said, "is by breaking Derek's legs." Not so.

In professional football, a referee would have to be deaf not to be influenced by the noise generated by a home crowd. Very few manage to remain truly neutral. Yesterday Fleming was one of the untouchables. As early as the second minute Justin Marshall, the All Blacks captain, was engaging him in conversation. It became a recurring theme when, midway through the first half, Richard Cockerill shoved a hand in Marshall's face and the scrum-half responded by throwing a punch. Fleming put his arms around the protagonists and quietly warned them as to their future behaviour. He did so with a smile on his face. Flashpoint defused.

One of the key moments arrived just before half-time when, from a clear overlap, Taine Randell put Jeff Wilson over for a try. Fleming disallowed it for a forward pass. Had the incident happened in Auckland, this would have been a very brave decision indeed. There wasn't much in it, but Wilson has no cause for complaint. He had unnecessarily overrun the passer.

The only time Fleming looked as though he might lose control of his composure was when Marshall protested too much at a decision. Fleming awarded England an extra 10 metres and Marshall, instead of heeding the warning, continued to back chat. Ian Jones, playing the role of the elder statesman, or perhaps a bomb disposal expert, intervened.

A modern referee needs eyes in the back of his head, especially when watching players encroaching offside or when, after awarding a penalty, the scrum-half takes a tap almost instantaneously. Despite this, Fleming's touch judges were almost totally redundant. Perhaps some New Zealanders would think that Rees's try was doubtful, but there was no reaction from the touch judge and no reaction from Fleming.

It was a stunning try, one of the best scored by a wing against the All Blacks anywhere, any time.

A few minutes from the end, perhaps Fleming warranted a deduction of a point on his overall performance when Matt Dawson, England's replacement scrum-half, pointed an accusing finger at Randell - "for Christ's sake ref, he's offside" - or some such, and the Scotsman awarded England a penalty.

Those who can, play; those who cannot, referee. Just as well really.

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