Rugby union: Rigid refereeing `a threat to game'

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THE RUGBY World Cup chairman, Leo Williams, last night warned that this year's tournament is in danger of being wrecked by referees. Williams was critical of standards and called for officials to follow the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

Williams, an Australian, criticised the handling of the southern hemisphere's Super 12 tournament and the Five Nations' Championship. "The game has degenerated as a spectacle," Williams said, "and if it flows on to the World Cup it could be disastrous. If we turn out [in the World Cup] what has been seen so far in the Super 12 it will be unbelievably bad. Games are being decided by referees, not players. I've seen it in the Five Nations as well."

Williams claims referees are blowing the whistle at every minor infringement, regardless of whether there is an impact on play. "This letter of the law stuff is nonsense," Williams added. "There has to be a degree of discretion for the referees. At the World Cup we don't want a festival of whistle- blowing, we want a festival of rugby."

According to the chief of Australian referees, Russell Trotter, officials are being encouraged to control games in this way because assessors employed by the International Rugby Board are scoring performances; at stake this season are 16 refereeing and 12 touch judge positions in the World Cup in Wales this autumn.

Williams has called a meeting in Argentina next month where international power brokers within the game can address the problem.

There is a certain irony in Williams comments in the light of what happened at Twickenham last Saturday when the New Zealand referee, Colin Hawke, limped off at half-time and handed over his whistle and watch to Scotland's Jim Fleming. But Clive Woodward, the England coach, said afterwards that there had been no discernible difference in the interpretation of the laws - the chief criticism of players and coaches from the two hemispheres.

England's and Saracens' worst fears were confirmed yesterday with the news that the scrum-half Kyran Bracken will not only miss England's Grand Slam decider against Wales at Wembley on 11 April - a match which looks like being a 79,000 sell-out - but also most of the remainder of Saracens' Allied Dunbar Premiership One programme. However, the injury to medial ligaments in his knee did not prevent Bracken from signing a new contract with his club that will keep him at Saracens for a further three years until June 2002.

Woodward's troubles do not stop there. The Sale wing, David Rees, another casualty against France, is likely to need up to six weeks to recover from his ankle injury. Sale have also lost the services of their other talented wing, Steve Hanley, who was injured playing for England A last weekend.

Ireland's stand-off, David Humphreys, has been ruled out of action for at least eight weeks with the tendon damage to his hand that he suffered early in last Saturday's 30-13 Five Nations defeat by Scotland. He will miss Ireland's match against Italy in Dublin on 10 April.

Eric Elwood, who lost his place to Humphreys for the Five Nations' Championship, now looks certain to return to the team.

The fate of Cardiff and Swansea is unlikely to be known until next week. A meeting of the Welsh Rugby Union's general committee last night was expected to defer until after the weekend Cup ties a decision on whether the two clubs should be suspended from the union for non-payment of fines levied on them for playing unsanctioned matches against English opposition.

The feeling was that both sides in the dispute would make a number of concessions, the WRU is expected to waive the fines and tear up the 10- year loyalty contract that sparked the row, while for their part the clubs would undertake to play in the Welsh League next season and the British League thereafter. They would also expect the WRU to grant them "Super Club" status and to be granted two of Wales' places in next season's European Cup.