Rugby Union: Men in the middle of a muddle: Five Nations' aftermath: A question of interpretation has put referees on the spot . . . Clem Thomas finds confusion and conflict over the application of the law

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THE Scotland and British Lions captain, Gavin Hastings, can be forgiven for thinking that someone up there is against him. To lose two of the most critical games of his illustrious career (the first Test in New Zealand in the summer and last Saturday's Calcutta Cup game against England), both in injury time, and both to disputed penalties, is enough to make the bravest of men weep.

So concerned was the Scottish director of coaching, Jim Telfer, for the morale of his team, and particularly Ian Jardine, who was fingered as the man who handled the ball on the ground, that he asked for a special showing of a video of that fateful ruck.

In Telfer's own words: 'The video clearly exonerated Jardine from blame. It was Rob Andrew who put his hand on the ball.' Other referees will tell you that they spotted other offences at the same ruck. Telfer fell short of actually blaming Lindsay McLachlan, preferring to blame the interpretation of the laws. 'The laws seem simple but it is such a dynamic game that quick judgements are sometimes impossible to make. Every referee is materially different from the next, particularly in the way he applies the laws relating to the rucks and mauls, the line-outs and offside.'

Last Saturday, two passionate games of international rugby were settled by interpretations of the laws by referees. Out of 61 points scored, 51 came from the boot - 16 penalty goals and one drop goal.

According to Ken Rowlands, the Welsh union official, the referee is no longer the 31st player, but has become the most important man on the field. However, few referees enjoy this status, and an empathy with the players is crucial to their efficiency. Rowlands said: 'A referee must have a feel for the game with a positive view of what a player is trying to achieve but you must beware and punish the player prepared to be destructive of the law.'

Clive Norling, one of the greatest of our referees, proffered a similar view: 'The secret of good refereeing is knowing when not to blow the whistle. You can in fact referee without a whistle.' Norling believes that the laws themselves are more at fault than the referees and that they should not be made by committee men but should be decided by a panel of active players, active coaches and active referees. He is especially caustic of the recent stewardship of the International Rugby Board's laws committee by Dr Roger Vanderfield of Australia, who he says has not blown a whistle for more than 20 years.

In common with other referees, Norling believes that laws are sometimes changed unnecessarily on the whim of individual countries. For instance, you could once opt to take a scrum instead of a line-out on your own throw, and the repeal of that law was at the instigation of the Scottish. Norling believes that its return would counter the modern rush for the seven-foot giant.

It is time, Norling said, for the IRB to decide whether it wants a game ruled by power or skill. At the moment, anomalies abound. For instance, under-19 players are taught not to push more than a metre-and-a-half at a scrum. But when he is promoted to a senior team, pushing is a fundamental requirement.

Fred Howard, the formidable English official who has recently been appointed as the national referees coach by the Rugby Union, disagreed that it is the laws which are at fault. He pointed out that during the World Cup there was total consistency between the northern and southern hemisphere referees concerning staying on feet in the ruck.

Now, however, things have got worse, according to Howard, because there is insufficient communication and referees revert to the style required by their respective home union. Rowlands confirmed this, saying that he had never seen a ruck as defined in the law book, which says that a player joining a ruck must have his head and shoulders no lower than his hip. He must bind with at least one arm around the body of a player of his team in the ruck.

Howard conceded that one of the biggest problems in the game is the ruck, and pointed out that there is only one genuine ruck: with everybody on their feet. However, the best way of securing the ball in the modern game is to go to ground and the players have rumbled this. Once people are not upright, there is no ruck, and this is not properly covered by law. Penalties at rucks, which depend on the interpretation of individual referees, have become far too prevalent.

It is proposed that each country's director of referees will meet in Sydney later this year for the very first time. These problems will be high on the agenda, but the most pressing issue will be the question of the recruitment of referees. New Zealand are 2,000 short of their requirement, South Africa are lacking 1,500, and Wales have a shortfall of 300. Given the demands of the job, this is hardly surprising.

(Photograph omitted)