Luck the final arbiter when legalised chaos is king

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Watching a match on television, I usually turn the sound down when it is proving rather dull. On Saturday I did the same for the opposite reason. I turned the sound down because the match was unbearably exciting.

Watching a match on television, I usually turn the sound down when it is proving rather dull. On Saturday I did the same for the opposite reason. I turned the sound down because the match was unbearably exciting.

It was in the last seven minutes of France v Wales. There had been two abortive scrums virtually on the Welsh line. In both of them the New Zealand referee, Paul Honiss, had found the Welsh forwards at fault. Next time, I thought, he would be pointing at the posts and France would gratefully accept seven points to win the match.

But, for whatever reason, Honiss did not award a penalty try. In similar circumstances his fellow countryman Paddy O'Brien would have done; or so I feel. But then again, the decisions of referees, like much else in rugby, as in life, are subject to fashion. The fashion for the penalty try, which was at its height five years ago, may now be on the wane.

Not so the fashion for kicking penalties to the corner, resulting in a line-out five metres from the goal-line (in former times it was where the ball crossed the touchline). Here the decision is made by the captain or by some other pushy player. On Sunday in Dublin, England had the chance of an easy penalty which, if an in-form Charlie Hodgson had kicked it, would have brought them within a few points of Ireland. Instead Jason Robinson instructed him to go for the corner.

England won the line-out but failed to score the try. Josh Lewsey claims to have grounded the ball but is unsure whether it was beyond the line. The South African referee, Jonathan Kaplan, gave Ireland the turnover and awarded them a scrum. The England coach, Andy Robinson, claimed he ought to have asked for video guidance.

Perhaps he ought. I agree with Robinson to this extent: that if the technology is available, there is no point in not using it. My only doubt is whether, on this occasion, all the technology in the world would have been able to show exactly what had happened.

Before proceeding to other aspects of Kaplan's refereeing, I return to a question which I have asked several times in the past and to which I have received no satisfactory answer. If the chance of three points is turned down, why go for a line-out instead of a tap penalty or a scrum? The line-out is by its nature speculative, a kind of area where legalised chaos is king. A scrum, by contrast, guarantees possession and can suck in just as many defenders.

In this episode, Kaplan can be defended. Mark Cueto's touchdown from Hodgson's cross I could not estimate. But Kaplan certainly judged that a promising England move contained a forward pass when it was by no means self-evident. He also found the excellent Martin Corry had knocked on when he had knocked the ball in the direction of his own line. But he allowed Corry to score a try after Ronan O'Gara had been flagrantly obstructed. So, swings and roundabouts.

What any fair-minded observer must concede is the element of luck, not merely in the decisions of referees, but in the game as a whole. Thus France could have beaten Wales, as England could Ireland, and no one could have complained. The difference is that Wales showed character on an epic scale, whereas Ireland put up a display of determination and common sense, relieved by a few touches on the part of Denis Hickie, Geordan Murphy and Brian O'Driscoll. I shall not be at all surprised if France beat Ireland in Dublin.

Wales have never travelled comfortably to Edinburgh, not even in their periods of greatest success. Why this should be so I do not know, but so it is. The Welsh are not a puritan nation - they fought for the King in the Civil War - and there may be something about the chilly East which unsettles their spirit.

The loss of Gareth Thomas is not as upsetting as it may appear, for Kevin Morgan is a natural full-back, while Rhys Williams can come in on the wing without weakening the side in any significant respect. In the absence of Jonny Wilkinson, Stephen Jones and not O'Gara must be favourite for Lions outside-half. Indeed, with every match that passes, the number of potential Lions from Wales increases.

In one respect, I hope Mike Ruddock, the coach, emulates his somewhat grim predecessor Graham Henry: that is, by choosing an entire reserve front row for the remaining two matches. Robin McBryde, the reserve hooker, showed his value on Saturday. I would add Duncan Jones and, old though he may be, John Davies to the mixture.

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