Alan Watkins: Eccentric decisions mean O'Brien should be kept away

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The Independent Online

Shortly before Wales v South Africa a friend asked me how I thought the match would go. I predicted the Springboks by 30 points. It looked like that, he glumly agreed.

Shortly before Wales v South Africa a friend asked me how I thought the match would go. I predicted the Springboks by 30 points. It looked like that, he glumly agreed. Many similar forecasts were being made beforehand. So Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, and his team perhaps deserve more credit than they have so far been given.

Already, however - it took some 24 hours to surface - there is an excuse on the part of South Africa for the narrowness of their victory. This is that time is different in the northern hemisphere: or, at any rate, that the clocks are different. Jake White, the coach, says that if he had known there were eight minutes to go before the final whistle, instead of the seconds he imagined, he would not have made those substitutions he did make.

I am sure White is telling the truth. Even so, his explanation - or his excuse - does not altogether make sense to me.

For, if time was nearly up, what was the point of making any substitutions at all, except to give a few players the experience of briefly treading the hardly sacred - for it is too newly laid to be sacred - turf of the Millennium Stadium? It would have been more rational to bring on substitutes if he had believed that which was indeed the case, namely, that there were some minutes left. Accordingly, I remain puzzled.

As it was, the absence of Os Du Randt from the South African front row undoubtedly made it easier for Gethin Jenkins (who had come on for the excellent Duncan Jones) and the other prop, Adam Jones, to disrupt the Springboks' scrum, so enabling Dwayne Peel, who also had a fine game, to nip in and score his try.

It was, I think, a lucky try. The referee, Paddy O'Brien, of New Zealand, should have reset the scrum, instead of allowing the Welsh pack to move forward against an opposing scrum whose loose-head prop was in a bolt upright position. But then, O'Brien's decisions throughout the match were eccentric in the extreme. All the rest of them had gone against Wales. It takes a good deal to unite Jonathan Davies and Brian Moore, but O'Brien managed it.

He is, as they say, no stranger to controversy. Some of us still remember his refereeing of the France v Fiji match in the World Cup before last when his clearly erroneous decisions deprived the Islanders of a deserved win. Quite why O'Brien is allowed to referee any match outside his own native New Zealand - where they can take their own national responsibility for him - I do not know. But there it is.

Others are more charitable than I feel any need to be. The trouble, they say, does not lie so much in O'Brien as in the interpretation of the laws of the game which prevails in the southern hemisphere. In particular, those countries do not like to see a contest for the ball after a tackle.

This is undoubtedly so, the tendency can be observed most clearly in the Super-12 competition rather than in the Tri-Nations Championship. In the Super-12, getting on with the game is everything. It is almost like rugby league, without the periodical, brief stoppages which occur in the latter code to enable the ball to be heeled back after a tackle.

One way to accommodate the southern hemisphere's approach would be for the laws to allow more flexibility when a tackled player wants to hand the ball back to a member of his own side. After all, releasing the ball immediately is the most unnatural of movements; while rolling away is often physically impossible.

At the moment we have uniform laws but no uniformity of interpretation. The situation has clearly to be resolved. In the meantime, O'Brien and perhaps one or two other Antipodean arbiters might be kept away from internationals played here.

Lest it be thought that bias is to be found only in referees from the southern hemisphere, I should add in conclusion that I am a little worried by Ruddock's clear preferences. He was a good Swansea flanker who, following an accident, coached the side that beat Australia in 1992 but lost to South Africa in 1994. In recent seasons he revived the Newport-Gwent Dragons. He was given his present job over the head of Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli.

He is an honest man. Even so, there are signs in his selections so far of preferring players from Newport and Neath-Swansea at the expense of those from Cardiff and Llanelli. He may say that the last two clubs are out of form. But I could see no good reason for preferring Hal Luscombe to Rhys Williams on the right wing, or for neglecting Vernon Cooper (admittedly injured), Chris Wyatt and the second Adam Jones as candidates for the second row.

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