Rugby Union: Referees a law unto themselves

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The true extent of the confusion over rugby's ludicrously complicated rulebook became apparent yesterday with the admission that England not only intend to study video tapes of their forthcoming opponents from the southern hemisphere, but footage of the appointed referees as well. Chris Hewett reports on the paranoia plaguing the game.

Rugby is all about the 30 players putting their hearts, souls and bodies on the line out there on the pitch, right? Wrong. It is increasingly about a 31st performer, the man in the middle armed with a tin whistle and a set of laws complex enough to leave the Lord Chief Justice nursing a migraine.

Nick Bunting, England's refereeing development officer, yesterday tacitly admitted that the present rules governing the areas of greatest physical impact - the tackle and the ruck - were so open to interpretation that top-class sides could find themselves playing two entirely different games in as many weeks, depending on the whims and fancies of the match officials. In so doing, he legitimised fears expressed by a number of senior England players that they risk being penalised out of this autumn's games against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

Three of those Tests will be controlled by southern hemisphere officials who, as Bunting pointed out, interpret the ruck and tackle laws differently to their colleagues from the northern hemisphere. "It shouldn't be about interpretation and we would like to see a universal approach, but there is a different culture down south and this is something we need to discuss," he said. In the meantime, England will do their level best to prepare themselves for the unknown by analysing video footage of each referee.

The English players are not even sure whether they will be permitted to place boots on opposing bodies in an effort to clear space for efficient rucking. "I think we would prefer people not to stand on others," Bunting said. Did that mean such practices were illegal, in his view at least? "Referees should not shy away from giving penalties," he replied cryptically.

Early next month England's senior referees will meet with coaches from the 24 Allied Dunbar Premiership clubs in an effort to shed light on some of the more nebulous areas of the rulebook. It will be of strictly temporary benefit; when the International Board next meets in January, it will consider no fewer than 120 rule change proposals from governing bodies around the world.

Meanwhile, England's leading clubs at least know how much money they will be playing for in this season's national knock-out cup. Carlsberg -Tetley, the Leeds-based brewing giant with a substantial track record in sports sponsorship, yesterday announced a deal with the Rugby Football Union thought to be worth around pounds 7m over four years.

For their money, they have bought the knock-out tournament, now to be called the Tetley's Bitter Cup, the county championship, the under-21 championship and the junior cup competition, which will go under the name of the Tetley's Bitter Vase. A prize fund of pounds 750,000 is in place for this season's senior competition, with the winners guaranteed pounds 50,000 and the runners-up pounds 35,000.

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