Rugby Union: Power to the man in black

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The Independent Online
LATE as usual but enthusiastic as ever, I want to deal this week with the changes I should like to see in 1994. The first is that players should treat referees with more respect. For while I hold it to be a fundamental constitutional right of spectators to boo referees, or to accuse them of being in the pay of the opposing side, or to be in need of a guide dog and a white stick, I believe that players should be more constrained.

Indeed, if I were a referee (which thank the Lord I am not), I should make Joseph Stalin look like John Major. This perhaps indicates the nature of the present situation.

It is not so much that players do not accord the referee enough respect. It is, rather, that the referee does not exert sufficient authority. Often he appears a fussy, prissy figure rather than the embodiment of whistle- blowing command.

You might think that relative size has something to do with it, in an age of huge open-side flankers. Not so. Some of the most commanding figures in history have been small men for indeed that very reason. Think of Napoleon, Churchill, Beaverbrook, Jacques Fouroux.

The trouble with union referees is that, with a few exceptions, they do not exude an air of calm authority. I refrain from listing the exceptions by name because the ones that are unmentioned may be hurt, may even bear a grudge against me for life. This is what happened with the late Richard Crossman when, in a column, he listed the four solitary trade union MPs who were, in his opinion, fit to be ministers. The consequence was that he made lifelong enemies of the rest.

I will, however, mention one referee who is no longer in active practice: Clive Norling. He was not only a figure of authority, he also appeared to be enjoying himself, and to want the players to enjoy themselves, too.

This brings me to my second hope for 1994. It is that, while referees should try to model themselves more on rugby league referees, who will not stand any nonsense from anyone, they should also try to help players to keep within the rules, or the laws, as some people like to call them.

Norling is - or, sadly, was - a model in this area, as he demonstrated particularly in his control of five Oxford and Cambridge matches between 1977 and 1989. He conducted the players as if they were an orchestra. His particular preoccupation lay in keeping them in an onside position.

It has always struck me as an easy and unfair three points for the attacking side when the defending side's backs are adjudged to have encroached offside. The points are easy because the penalty is always in a kickable position; unfair because the encroachment is usually the result of keenness or anxiety rather than of any deliberate intention to flout the rules. The referee could amost always eliminate the possibility of an infringement by vigourously waving one arm, the palm of the hand outwards, as Norling used to do.

The other variety of offside is more prevalent, more insidious, more difficult to spot, almost always deliberate and in danger of ruining the game. It is playing most of the 80 minutes in an offside position and waiting for the others to catch up with you.

New Zealand sides have traditionally been adept at this ploy; Finlay Calder, the Scottish No 7, was a master of it. The new laws have, if anything, seemed to legitimise certain aspects of it. So players cannot be blamed for exploiting it, or referees for allowing it.

One consequence today is that many apparent interceptions are not true interceptions at all. Instead the attacking player eroneously passes the ball to a defender who happens to be standing between him and his attacking team-mate.

I am glad to see that touch judges (or linesmen, as some people like to call them) are involving themselves more in refereeing decisions in club, as distinct from international, matches. I should like them to be even more active - and for the referee in all major matches to be first among three stern equals who all possess refereeing qualifications.