Rugby Union: Whistle sonatas dull the sweet music of flowing rugby

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SO FAR, the Heineken Cup has proved more interesting than the World Cup. English and Welsh clubs that might have fancied their chances when the competition began - Cardiff, Harlequins, Saracens and Swansea - look like falling by the wayside. Llanelli, Pontypridd and Wasps are still in with a shout.

Munster may turn out to be the Ulster of 1999-2000. They were, however, fortunate to beat Saracens on Sunday at Vicarage Road through a converted try which manifestly was not converted. The ball went left of an imaginary continuation of the left-hand upright.

Likewise, Leicester were, if anything, even more lucky to beat Stade Francais on Saturday at Welford Road. They were allowed to get away with a flagrantly forward pass in their own 22 following the kick-off. The Paris team were denied a perfectly good try because of an allegedly forward pass which was nothing of the kind. In awarding penalties to Leicester the referee, Clayton Thomas, leant so far backwards that he was in danger of falling over and giving his head a nasty bump.

A few weeks ago I wrote in relation to the World Cup that, though my native land might no longer produce the great sides of the past, we Welsh still had the best referees in the world. After Saturday's match I am not so sure. In fairness to Thomas, he did try to keep the game moving and policed offside admirably in those intervals when he was not blowing his whistle. But Richard Pool-Jones, the Stade Francais flanker, was justified in complaining afterwards.

Pool-Jones has not been treated entirely generously by the England selectors. I remember having a chat with him in the dressing-room after a French Cup semi-final when he was playing for Biarritz. In France, rugby correspondents are allowed into the dressing-rooms immediately after the game. Mingling with a lot of sweaty male bodies is not, I confess, my own idea of a good time. Nevertheless, the privilege illustrates the difference in the way the rugby press is regarded in this country and in France.

Someone else who has not been handled fairly by the England selectors is Tim Stimpson, the Leicester full-back. On Saturday he kicked faultlessly and scored an individualistic try. He did everything that could reasonably have been asked of him, and a bit more. And yet Clive Woodward, the England coach, persists with Matt Perry in this position and gives occasional outings to Nick Beal when Perry is unavailable or indisposed. Loyalty is an excellent quality in a selector, a manager or a coach. England did not have enough of it until the arrival of Geoff Cooke. But there comes a point where loyalty turns into favouritism towards one player and vindictiveness towards another.

Unfortunately for Stimpson, he fell out with Rob Andrew at Newcastle and spent virtually an entire season on the touchline. I am not even sure he was allowed to get as close to the pitch as that. He then moved to Leicester, where he has prospered. It does not need a crystal ball to predict that Andrew will shortly and justifiably become England's manager, with either Woodward or somebody else in a subordinate position to him as coach. Andrew is intelligent enough to be able to discard any prejudices he may possess. Even so, I imagine it would be difficult for the Leicester full-back to flourish under a regime headed by him.

Stimpson's try, and Jeremy Thomson's very different try for Saracens next day, are what people who watch rugby matches want to see. They are what rugby followers want to see, even though they may still be able to take pleasure in a contest between two packs. They certainly do not turn out on cold afternoons, still less watch from their armchairs, to listen to Clayton Thomas's sonata for whistle.

A conference is currently going on in Australia about modifying the laws. In the meantime, the referees could undoubtedly take ameliorative action of their own in their interpretations of the existing laws. They are now too strict about some matters, too lax about others. They are lax about the crooked put-in. They are strict about awarding a penalty for failing to release the ball and/or to move away after a tackle, when the wretched player is pinioned to the ground.

In these circumstances the sensible option is to award a scrum, with the put-in going to the side that would otherwise have been given the penalty. And why should a prop deliberately collapse a scrum when his side are defending inside their own 22 and have the put-in? Yet referees persist in believing they do this all the time.

Rugby will never be a mass-audience sport. What it needs to do is make itself more attractive - and more comprehensible - to its natural followers, which it is not now doing.