Gloucester's Nick Wood faces long ban as referees feel the strain


Nick Wood, the Gloucester prop sent off at Saracens for using the flanker Jacques Burger as a human doormat, will face a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel in Bristol on Tuesday to answer for his crime. It should not take him long – he has already apologised to all and sundry, both for stamping on Burger’s head and for leaving his team a man short for 79 minutes of an 80-minute game – but his suspension could drag on for quite a while. He will be very lucky indeed if he plays again before the end of November.

Just for once, no one in the coaching community felt aggrieved at the weekend’s big refereeing call: Nigel Davies, the Gloucester rugby director, acknowledged immediately that the Test official Wayne Barnes had little or no option but to send Wood packing. Yet elsewhere, referees are feeling like flak-magnets. Even the International Rugby Board, generally protective of the men charged with making instant decisions under  extreme pressure, has felt driven to join the chorus of condemnation.

Yesterday, the Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis was freed to continue playing in the Rugby Championship after having a red card rescinded. Quite rightly too: his tackle on the All Black outside-half Daniel Carter in Auckland on Saturday was certainly destructive and may have had a whiff of offside about it, but it was not, in and of itself, illegal. The fact that the referee responsible for misreading it, Romain Poite of France, subsequently dismissed Du Plessis for a second cardable offence was a classic example of Sod’s Law in action.

Sadly, the IRB’s formal statement declaring that Poite had been guilty of an “unfortunate case of human error” may turn out to be counter-productive. Poite, rated by many excellent judges as the world’s best referee, was not granted an opportunity to admit to his own failings after the game – officials are barred from commenting ahead of disciplinary hearings – and cannot have appreciated the governing bodies “help” in the matter, especially as it was accompanied by a veiled threat of demotion from Test duty.

With the Leicester rugby director Richard Cockerill currently serving a nine-week “touchline ban” imposed after a force-10 rant during last season’s Premiership final and Dean Ryan, his counterpart at Worcester, criticising aspects of refereeing performance after both of his team’s league games to date, officials are feeling extremely exposed. To make matters worse, their sense of vulnerability is being sharpened by growing crowd discontent whenever a referral is made to television match officials, whose role has been expanded this season.

It is a sign of the times. Earlier this month, the Rugby Football Union chose to part company with Ed Morrison, who had been in charge of Twickenham’s elite refereeing department for five years. One of the finest officials in the sport’s history, he had made it his business to build the best possible relationships with top-flight coaches who would phone him every Monday to complain bitterly about perceived injustices. At the same time, he offered unstinting support to the referees, especially after the loss of a number of experienced international-class officials – Tony Spreadbury, Chris White, Dave Pearson – left the English game with scant resources.

Scrum trouble: Weekend incidents

Nick Wood: Gloucester prop was sent off after just 73 seconds against Saracens.

Bismarck du Plessis: South Africa hooker’s red card against New Zealand was rescinded.

Logovi’i Mulipola and Tom Youngs: Leicester’s prop and hooker were sin-binned in their defeat to Bath.