Alan Watkins On Rugby: Murray's red-card punishment makes game absurd and unjust

Sending-off was reserved for gross breaches of the laws
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"Why oh why," the late opera critic Philip Hope-Wallace used to lament, "must they insist on employing young women from New Zealand?" He would be referring to his sub-editors on The Guardian, where he worked, who would once again have changed Boris Godunov into Doris Godunov. And why oh why, one is tempted to echo, do we employ referees from the same small country? Paddy O'Brien, a New Zealander, had a high reputation and was given many of the big matches to oversee.

But what I remember most strongly about him is the way he refereed France v Fiji in the World Cup before last, when he penalised Fiji where he should have punished France and, arguably, cost the South Seas side a match which they deserved to win.

Paul Honiss, another New Zealander, refereed England v Wales at Twickenham a week last Saturday. He questionably penalised Wales several times while leaving England's forward passes and tap-ons alone, and managed to get in the way when Lawrence Dallaglio was scoring an England try which should, strictly, have been disallowed because of his obstruction.

I do not want to be unfair to Honiss. His refereeing of the France v Ireland match a week later could not be faulted. It was an extraordinary game. France built up a huge lead largely on charge-downs and interceptions - which, owing to the looped passes that are such a feature of the modern game, are becoming increasingly common, as Chris Paterson demonstrated at Cardiff on the following day.

In Paris, Ireland had a period of inspiration equalled only by Wales in the second half at Cardiff; while in their own second half the French team appeared hardly able to cross the road without dropping their ice-cream.

All these stirring events were, however, dominated by the action of another New Zealander, Steve Walsh, in sending off the Scottish lock Scott Murray in Cardiff before even the first quarter of the match had been completed.

Six days previously he had been given the man of the match award for his performance against France. This was well deserved in two senses. First, Murray had disrupted the French line out on the afternoon. But, second, this represented the culmination of a long period for him of recovery and rehabilitation.

Murray was one of the British and Irish Lions who went out to Australia under Graham Henry in 2001 with the highest reputation. He was one of several who had an unhappy tour, partly on account of the deficiencies of the management on that occasion. Most of the tourists - Colin Charvis, Ben Cohen, Matt Dawson - made a full recovery in due course. But others (Iain Balshaw is someone who comes to mind) are not the players they were when they set out for Australia something under six years ago.

What happened on Sunday has been replayed endlessly. Ian Gough, the Wales lock, late-tackled Murray. The tackle was late, but it was neither dangerous nor vicious. Thus impeded without the ball, Murray lashed out with his leg, which again was not vicious but the natural action to take in these circumstances.

Whether it was dangerous is more disputable. One version is that his boot caught Gough on the face; another is that it hit him on the head; the implication seems to be that, while a boot in the face may be unpleasant, a kick on the head is life-threatening.

At all events, referee Walsh did not hesitate. He sent Gough to the sin-bin, and Murray to the bench on a more permanent footing. "I have no option under the laws of the game," he said.

In much the same spirit - and no doubt using much the same form of words - must Judge Jeffreys have sent some hapless West Country peasant to the scaffold for finding himself on the wrong side in the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion.

In 1947, when I was 14, I saw the Australian flanker Colin Windon being sent off at Stradey Park by the referee Ivor David. It was, I seem to remember, for an assault on his Llanelli opposite number, Ossie Williams. The Australian manager of the time came on to the pitch to protest, or to plead for clemency, or possibly both. But referee David remained adamant; and off the field Windon stayed.

The point is that sending-off was the final, solemn punishment, the equivalent of hanging in the great days of the English murder. It was reserved for a gross breach or breaches of the laws, usually involving some form of grievous bodily harm. It is both absurd and unjust that a forward such as Scott Murray should be treated in this way.

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