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LLANELLI put more than 50 points on Bridgend three months ago. 'Same team,' Clive Norling said, 'but now they've got their confidence back.' Something else has changed at the Brewery Field. The arrival of Norling, once the most sought-after referee in the international game, as director of rugby.
Most of the leading club sides in Wales have gone through revolutionary processes to adapt to league rugby, but Bridgend are the first to put a referee in overall charge. It came about by accident. In October, Norling went to a match at the Brewery Field as a referee's assessor. Bridgend were in a mess and what is more, Norling told them, they did not know the new laws. They asked him to give them a crash course and the session went so well there followed what Norling describes as the night of the long knives.
In came Norling and he has the assistance of the former Wales threequarters, Steve Fenwick, who coaches the backs, and J J Williams, in charge of fitness. In the stand is Norling's father, who analyses the penalties conceded. The crucial analysis on Saturday was made by Norling and Co before the match started. Colin Stephens, the Wales stand-off, was a marked man.
Stephens was returning after being injured in a cup match at Stradey Park, where he was tackled over a wall and on to the terraces. His ego was bruised as early as the 12th minute against Bridgend when he had a kick charged down by Robert Howley, who outpaced the cover over half the length of the field. With the back row and the half-backs arrowing in on him, Stephens's game fell apart. It was not a pretty sight, certainly not for the Wales coach, Alan Davies, who takes Stephens in his squad to Lanzarote tomorrow.
When Stephens, for the umpteenth time, failed to find touch, Chris Bradshaw, a full-back who wears a scrum-cap, took the ball at speed and was punching the air in celebration before he had even crossed the line. Llanelli had a weakened side and Stephens did not have the protection of his captain, Rupert Moon, at scrum-half, but this cannot excuse such a hopeless performance. Llanelli had lost only one Heineken League match, but their capitulation against Bridgend probably means that the First Division title will be a two-horse race between Cardiff and Swansea.
Before Paul Jones scored an excellent third try - the right wing came into the line with Bradshaw acting as decoy - Llanelli were beaten. By that stage, the scrum- half was bypassing Stephens and was attempting instead to find the centres. When Norling took up his 'expenses only' post, Bridgend had five points. Now they have 13 and the prospect of relegation has passed.
The director of rugby had no doubt that by the next World Cup Wales's half-backs will be Howley, who goes to Lanzarote in place of the injured Moon, and his partner, Matthew Lewis. Howley, made man of the match in the game between West Wales and East Wales, has made such an impression he could be capped long before that.
There was no danger of Norling ever being capped. I played in the same side as him at Neath GS and he was a decidedly, how can I put it, unexceptional forward. In every other respect, he has made a significant impression in the game. Norling, who is qualified in business consultancy as well as refereeing and coaching, has some radical ideas.
He foresees a European league by 1996 in which the leading Welsh, English and French clubs would play against each other in the months of April, May, August and September with January, February and March reserved exclusively for international matches. 'Why play rugby just in the winter months when it's freezing bloody cold?' he said. 'Old habits have got to change and we've got to get away from the current thinking which I call NATO - no action, talk only.'
He disagrees with Alan Davies about Wales's need for more representative games. 'How can a club improve players' skills if they spend half the time elsewhere? The bottom line is that it's the clubs who look after the players not the countries.' He wants to see a permit system introduced to help combat the poaching of players and he wants to see more referees holding coaching certificates. 'Too many referees are just law oriented and they don't let the game flow. It's like judges passing judgement on the ordinary citizen when they're not ordinary citizens themselves.'
Norling, who has a back injury, has hung up his whistle while he has been turning the water into beer at the Brewery Field. 'Bridgend have given me a challenging and enjoyable job,' he said, 'but I could well be refereeing again. I'll look at my position at the end of the season.' And how did Robert Yeman, the latest referee to join the Welsh Rugby Union's international panel, fare on Saturday? 'I'd give him seven out of 10,' Norling said. High praise, indeed.
Bridgend: Tries Howley, Bradshaw, Jones; Penalty Evans. Llanelli: Try Lamerton; Penalty Stephens.
Bridgend: C Bradshaw; P Jones, J Apsee, L Evans, P Wintle; M Lewis, R Howley; D Rees, I Greenslade, R Shaw, S Jenkins, A Gwilym, J Derrick, N Spender, D Bryant (capt).
Llanelli: H Williams; I Jones, S Davies, N Davies, W Proctor; C Stephens, S Wake; R Evans, A Lamerton, D Joseph, D Evans, P Jones, M Perego, G Jones (capt), L Jones.
Referee: R Yeman (Port Talbot).
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