England considering complaint over referee

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The Independent Online

The England coaching team, more apoplectic than ever over the performance of the South African referee Jonathan Kaplan in Sunday's narrow Six Nations Championship defeat to Ireland in Dublin, are considering lodging a complaint with the International Rugby Board. They will make a detailed study of all available video evidence, read the report of the board's own refereeing assessor, the Frenchman Michel Lamoulie, and consult with senior Twickenham officials before deciding whether to act.

The England coaching team, more apoplectic than ever over the performance of the South African referee Jonathan Kaplan in Sunday's narrow Six Nations Championship defeat to Ireland in Dublin, are considering lodging a complaint with the International Rugby Board. They will make a detailed study of all available video evidence, read the report of the board's own refereeing assessor, the Frenchman Michel Lamoulie, and consult with senior Twickenham officials before deciding whether to act.

Andy Robinson, the head coach, believes Kaplan was seriously at fault on at least three occasions during the game at Lansdowne Road, all of which either cost England important points or resulted in an Irish score. He sought out Kaplan at half-time to ask why a try by Mark Cueto had been disallowed - there is still confusion over the call, although the referee appeared to bring a marginal verdict of off-side against the Sale wing - but was too angry to resume the discussion after the game.

Robinson and his colleagues were still furious yesterday, although they refrained from expanding on their criticism of Kaplan in the immediate aftermath of the game. This was probably wise. After the World Cup victory in Sydney in November 2003, Robinson's predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward, voiced private concerns over the performance of another South African official, Andre Watson, and received a flea in his ear from the IRB. Outspoken public attacks on an international referee - or any referee, come to that - are anathema to the game's administrative classes, so England must be sure of their ground before attempting to hold Kaplan to account.

There is also the question of the British and Irish Lions' 11-match tour of New Zealand this summer - a trip on which Robinson will be reunited with Woodward at the top end of the coaching operation. With both New Zealand and British Isles officials out of the running for Test duty, the big games are likely to be handled by Australian and South African referees. As Kaplan is considered the most capable figure on the Springbok international panel, Robinson could think of better people to upset just at the moment.

However, a protest has not been ruled out. Indeed, there are signs that referees' long-standing immunity from criticism is beginning to crumble. The IRB itself appeared to dilute the traditional "officials are always right" approach last week when the Irishman Simon McDowell was withdrawn from video-refereeing duty in the Scotland-Italy match at Murrayfield. McDowell's touch-judging had incurred the wrath of the Scotland coach, Matt Williams, after the opening match of the tournament against France in Paris, and although an apology was made on behalf of Williams, the Irish Rugby Football Union decided to take the unusual step of urging a change of appointment in what it considered to be the interests of the sport.

Robinson is certainly tempted to make his feelings known. In dire need of a victory after consecutive defeats by Australia, Wales and France, the coach saw England's most passionate, if not their most accomplished, Six Nations performance for two years undermined by a serious of questionable decisions. To make matters worse, he and his team will find it difficult to salvage something from a blighted season. They have only two relatively soft championship matches against Italy and Scotland ahead of them - fixtures that will offer little in the way of kudos, even if England win both by a country mile - plus the Churchill Cup tournament in Canada in June, which is effectively a second-string concern.

Wales, far happier than England after three wins from as many outings, are likely to appoint the Newport-Gwent Dragons No 8 Michael Owen as their caretaker captain following the injury suffered by Gareth Thomas during Saturday's victory at Stade de France. Thomas was undergoing surgery yesterday on a badly fractured right thumb, and will miss the rest of the tournament.

Mike Ruddock, the national coach, described Owen's leadership in Thomas' absence during the second half in Paris as "superb", and effectively nominated the loose forward ahead of discussions with his fellow selectors. Owen said: "You dream about playing for Wales, but it never enters your head that you will captain your country."

Another victim of the thumb-injury outbreak, the Ireland centre Shane Horgan, is struggling to make the match with France in Dublin on Saturday week. He was undergoing tests in a Dublin hospital yesterday. Gordon D'Arcy, a fellow Leinster back who has missed the last two games with hamstring trouble, will return to the midfield if declared fit.

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