David Flatman: Time is enemy for Falcons but don't blame the whistle blower

View from the front row with Bath & England prop
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The Independent Online

While we rugby types are not at all like those ghastly footballers who are abusive and verbose every Saturday, neither are we shy in letting a referee know our opinion. Of course, our arguments rarely include swearwords and almost always end with the word "sir". Occasionally – actually, less since Lawrence Dallaglio retired – the lucky old referee might find a big, friendly arm being put around his shoulders just to make him feel at home or to help persuade him that the sermon to which he is currently being subjected is gospel. I regard the latter as more likely.

Even in the midst of battle, however, there is often room for a good bit of banter. I remember, back in the late 1990s, playing against a certain prop from a certain club who, for legal reasons, shall remain nameless. Every time I tried to drive him back in a scrum he took offence, and his retaliation manifested itself as a coy slip of the bind followed by a vicious fish-hook which repeatedly tore the inside of my mouth.

Having tired of this, I told the ref that the next time it happened and he failed to deal with it I'd do my best to bite the offending fingers off. So, predictably, he did it again and I bit him as hard as I could. A cartoon fight of swinging arms and no actual punches kicked off before said official managed to separate the pair of us and pull us aside for a dressing down. "I told you, sir," I panted, "I'm not here to get my mouth torn to shreds." "And I'm not a bloody boxing referee," he popped back. "Now then, you, stop putting your fingers in his mouth and you, stop biting them!" No penalties, no yellow cards, just an insincere handshake and back to work. Those were the days.

The problem is that with professionalism has come a new level of scrutiny. Rugby league officials were recently asked to stop using players' nicknames to communicate, presumably for fear that some sandal-wearing member of The National Trust might find it inappropriate. In fact research suggests that, as in high-security prisons, discipline with familiarity is far less likely to evoke an angry reaction. It does seem odd that when a referee comes into the changing room before kick-off, in time-honoured fashion, to tell the delinquent front rows not to cheat, he will refer to me as "Flats" but as soon as the whistle blows I become "Number One". Call me old-fashioned but I prefer the personal touch.

After our match at Newcastle last week we all agreed that referee John Paul Doyle had done a great job. He was tough and, of course, we disagreed with every decision that went against us, but at no point did anyone question him and we even managed to have a bit of fun. One scrum collapsed on impact and, unusually, we were just allowed to stand up and reset it. Both Carl Hayman and I had slipped on a muddy pitch so no snap decisions were needed. Upon standing up I tapped Doyle on the bum and said facetiously: "Watch Carl, sir, he has built a career on conning blokes like you." Of course, I said it loud enough for Carl to hear and we all had a laugh before smashing into one another again seconds later.

It was this level of interpersonal comfort that made Peter Short, our lock forward, feel able to request from Doyle a time-check having seen the digital clock at Kingston Park stand still for far too long. It had been rightly stopped for an injury but, seemingly, not started again. After a quick chat with his assistant and a long look at his trusty little wristwatch, we were told that it was indeed a minute out.

This information did not reach the ears of the Newcastle players as, when the final whistle was blown and there still seemed to be a minute left to play, there was uproar. Well, as much uproar as is possible from a bunch of blokes utterly exhausted after 80 minutes of rugby played on a pitch so heavy it might have been ploughed that morning and laced with lead. I tried, in vain, to placate some of the more dismayed opposition players but, with not a breath left in my body, decided to leave it to the poor old ref.

All this got me thinking; imagine if this had happened at Old Trafford with Chelsea the visitors. Weeks of recriminations would have followed with millionaire managers and players stamping their heels and complaining like children. This would have been fuelled by expert pundits tossing their views into the mêlée. Instead, as this was a rugby match; a simple "I decide when the whistle blows, not you" did the trick. No arguments, no accusations or abuse. There is a lesson here for all sports.