These are hard times for the refereeing community.
Serious controversies used to occur about three times a decade: the 1970s gave us Fergus Slattery's infamous disallowed try for the Lions, the All Blacks' line-out shenanigans in Wales and the South African official who, in awarding a drop goal to the whites-only Springboks on account of the delirious reaction of the crowd behind the posts, failed to recognise that these were local black people celebrating because the kick had been missed. Now, there is a row every other week. Especially in England, where officials are either lambasted by irate coaches or hung out to dry by administrators.
As a consequence, the level of morale among the Rugby Football Union's elite panel of referees has dropped like a stone. They did not appreciate for one second Richard Cockerill's recent verbal assault on the part-timer Tim Wigglesworth (real job, chartered surveyor), which led to Leicester's head coach being removed from match-day duties for a month, and were left spitting tacks when a hand-picked group of Premiership chief executives blamed the embarrassing last-minute postponement of the Sale-Wasps match in late November on the unfortunate David Rose, regardless of the fact that Wasps had made up their minds not to play and that the Premiership's own rules covering this area conflicted with International Board regulations, leaving the man with the whistle in a hopeless position.
Rose, another part-timer, was in the thick of it again a week ago, when the Saracens director of rugby, Brendan Venter, gave him a public going-over so thorough that his victim must have felt like phoning the Samaritans, or Max Clifford, or both. Venter now finds himself on an RFU rap, which Saracens say they will fight with the kind of vigour associated with the accused during his hard-hitting days as a Springbok centre. It is not yet clear whether Rose will be invited along to listen to the criticism all over again.
Given that these poor, put-upon souls need, as they have never needed before, a leader with an unusual range of qualities – part stoic, part diplomat, part man of the people, part video analyst of genius – it is probably as well that Ed Morrison is currently running the show as the governing body's elite referee manager. The Bristolian was for some years the world's finest official, hence his appointment to the 1995 World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand in Johannesburg, an unprecedentedly pressurised occasion otherwise known as the "Mandela match". Now, he finds himself handling pressure of a different kind.
"If people are being told every day that they're doing something poorly, it's bound to sap morale," he says. "They operate in a very competitive, very difficult environment – particularly in England and France, where relegation from the top division exists and the top clubs have no guaranteed security. Under such circumstances, criticism is inevitable – absolutely inevitable – and we're not so naive to believe for one second that we won't get a kicking from time to time. When that happens, I question myself, as do we all. But mistakes are inevitable too. Our aim is to reduce those mistakes to a bare minimum. I think we're making progress and if there's one message I want to get out there, it's that I have great faith in our referees. We have a strong set of officials in this country and we're building an equally strong network of support."
Morrison highlights three developments that have put his department ahead of the game: the exhaustive review process set up to encourage two-way communication between officials and head coaches; the sharp improvement in conditioning programmes and medical back-up, allied to technological advances barely imaginable even a decade ago; and the identification of fresh talent that, in Morrison's opinion, will ensure England remains world leader in this area of the sport (if not in the playing of it).
There are five full-time professional referees – Wayne Barnes, Rob Debney, Dave Pearson, Andrew Small and Chris White – plus a handful of other front-liners who hold down "proper" jobs in addition to their whistling duties. Moreover, Morrison has fast-tracked two trainees, J P Doyle and Greg Garner, towards full-time status. These newcomers represent the future: 30 and 31 respectively, they were teaching together at the same prep school in Surrey when they were spotted as officials equipped with what the boss describes as "all the right credentials, plus something of the X Factor".
"It's not rocket science," Morrison says. "If a gifted referee is working full-time on his game, his progress will be much quicker than if he spends his working day doing something else. Under the system we have in place now, Greg and J P can be referees four weeks out of four instead of two weeks in four. We're delighted with the way they've come on; in fact, they've made strides over the last 12 months that would have taken them five years to make previously.
"We also have two 19-year-olds under scrutiny. Needless to say, it will be some considerable time before they start refereeing in the Premiership or in European rugby, but the important thing is that we look ahead, because this game isn't going to get easier to control. In my day, there was a lot of self-policing by the players – people didn't lay on the ball if they knew what was good for them – and it allowed us to concentrate on controlling other things. With so much television coverage, self-policing is a thing of the past. Today's referee has to control the whole game and that places extraordinary demands on his fitness, his preparation and his instincts."
All top-ranked referees now use "electronic diaries" and GPS technology to measure fitness training and match-day performance. Simon Kemp, the RFU's head of sports medicine, works closely with them, as does Alex Reid, a conditioning specialist who once worked in professional football with Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur. In addition, they have full downloading access to every Premiership match, complete with audio feeds from the officials. It is a very far cry from the days when a referee prepared for a game by jogging around the pitch and cadging a swift half from the chairman of the host club.
"We're doing everything we can think of to raise standards and keep them high," Morrison insists. "When the RFU set up its elite rugby department, we wanted to be included in it. We could have stayed in our own little corner and carried on in our own sweet way. We thought that would be an amateurish thing to do and decided to put ourselves on the shirt tails of the professional game in the hope it would take us with it. I think it was the best move we ever made.
"Each week, we go through our games in great detail with the directors of rugby and head coaches. There are some strong characters in that group and they take the process seriously, raising issues and making their points with complete freedom. For our part, we do our best to respond. I'll give you an example.
"When the International Board introduced the new ruck law back in the summer, everyone found life difficult. On the Lions tour of South Africa the best referees in the world struggled to come to terms with it, so it was no surprise that we struggled here in England. Once it became obvious that the tackle area had become even more complex and that it was stopping referees enjoying what they were doing, we met with every club to suggest a marginal adjustment that might help the situation. All 12 Premiership sides thought it right to give it a go, and in the two rounds since, things have been better.
"Currently, we have fewer scrum resets, which have been such a blight on the game, and fewer penalties being awarded for not releasing at the breakdown. I believe we're also sharper on offside in general play. But these things aren't refereeing problems, they're problems for everyone. I think that's generally acknowledged, but the intensity of professional rugby is so great now. Winning has become incredibly important to people."
Review processes, technological advances, fitness tests, forward planning... in any other walk of life, Morrison and his department would be regarded as state of the art. In their chosen walk of life, however, they cannot win. It used to be said that the best referees were defined by their anonymity, bordering on invisibility – that the only way they could show themselves as top officials was not to show themselves at all. Now, at the turn of a new decade, the David Roses of this world have nowhere to hide.
So what is going on? The breakdown and other grey areas
Ed Morrison admits that the demise of "self-policing" – the unwritten law that allowed players to use their feet to move opponents cluttering up the tackle area – has made life infinitely more difficult for referees. The current regulation permits the tackler to continue playing the ball at the ruck, provided he is off the floor and has his hands on the ball before the ruck forms. The official must decide whether those criteria are fulfilled while keeping an eye open for the dangerous clear-out, boots on bodies, ball-killers, people going straight to ground and others entering the fray from the side. Yes, it's that easy.
Since time immemorial, referees have struggled to understand who is doing what to whom at the set piece. Is the tight-head prop boring in on the opposition hooker, or is the opposing loose head splitting away in an effort to pinch a penalty? Did this front-rower collapse the scrum because he was under pressure, or did the guy exerting the pressure do it himself, as a con trick? Is one side getting away with the rolling hit, or the threequarter crouch? Are their rivals taking a step back on contact to make it look as though they are the victims of an early contact? It's make-your-mind-up time.
*The offside line
If collapsing scrums are a blight on rugby, as Morrison suggests, rampant offside is even more of a pestilence. Put simply, it stops teams moving the ball wide through the hands. Teams can be dominant at scrum, line-out, ruck and maul, yet still find themselves cramped for back-line space because of opponents encroaching in midfield – a difficult offence to spot when half a metre makes all the difference. Worse still are the mass offsides on the kick and chase, which reduce counter-attacking opportunities to a minimum. Is it any wonder that in the Premiership the boot is king?