James Lawton on the British and Irish Lions 2013: It's time to shine a light on murky world of rugby refereeing

When someone like Brian O'Driscoll wears a face of bewilderment you have a problem

If Brian O'Driscoll managed to ward off the temptation – just – non-combatants should probably refrain from saying that New Zealand referee Chris Pollock was a pygmy of outrageously subjective influence when he supervised the first Test giants.

This is no reason, though, for rugby's ruling body to ignore any longer the fact that it is presiding over two separate games, one played in the northern hemisphere, the other in the south, and that every showpiece game is now at the mercy of the absurdly arbitrary judgements of someone like Pollock.

Australia's latest phenomenon Israel Folau ran in two tries of dazzling accomplishment. George North responded for the Lions with a run worthy of breaking any game, anywhere in a grown-up world of sport.

But who was it that truly towered above the conflict, who constantly threatened to shape the outcome? It wasn't the wing behemoths with their startling ability. It wasn't the quick-silver Jonny Sexton or the ill-starred Kurtley Beale.

It was the man with the whistle, the one whose judgement in the vital area of the breakdown was deemed by Warren Gatland, the Lions coach, to be nothing less than "crucifying" . When someone as experienced as O'Driscoll, a former Lions captain on his record-equalling fourth tour, wears a face of absolute bewilderment, when he admits later that he could not trust himself to indulge his scavenging genius for work around the tackle, you know you have a problem.

You have a great player operating in an alien language. You have superb professionals at the mercy of whim.

It did not help that Pollock, who also bemused the Lions when he withdrew with what seemed indecent haste an advantage immediately before Will Genia launched a potentially killing counter-attack, received a constant stream of encouragement from his touch-judge Craig Joubert.

Joubert has created plenty of mystery and outrage in his own right when officiating in the northern hemisphere and in France the South African will probably never be forgiven for his performance in the World Cup final of 2011 in Auckland. The French, who outplayed the All Blacks in the second half before losing by a point, were bitter about Joubert's interpretation of the game. However, the coach Marc Lièvremont was at pains not to express it publicly.

He said that after meeting the referee two days before the final he swore to himself that whatever happened he would make no reference to the referee. Plainly, Lièvremont feared the worst – and soon enough there was reason enough to understand why.

We can only speculate on the degree of Gatland's public rage had the mis-firing Beale landed one of his two late penalty attempts. As it was, the Lions' narrow victory was a buffer against the kind of explosion which would surely have soured the climate far more than the coach's relatively measured criticisms of the referee's effort.

One barb guaranteed to sail home was Gatland's assertion that, "it is very difficult to step up from the provincial level to referee in the Test arena".

Most guaranteed to provoke indignation is one defence of Pollock's handling of the breakdown. In his familiar terrain of Super Rugby, it is said Pollock operates on the theory that the flow of the game is paramount, so that when a breakdown forager like O'Driscoll applies himself he is not so much performing a sterling service for his team, but lowering the entertainment level.

On several early occasions O'Driscoll argued politely that he was operating within the laws of the game fastidiously. He then withdrew from the discussion, concluding that however much he stayed on his feet, he was still in danger of going off his head.

None of this touches upon the technical nuances of rocket science. It is concerned with logically codified rules which should leave the rawest of international players as aware as an old war dog like O'Driscoll of what he can and cannot do.

Instead, in one of the most crucial areas of the game, rugby turns itself into a matter of chance. The advantage rule is also as contracted or as stretched as a Pollock deigns.

Technology is embraced thoroughly on the important question of whether a try has been scored, which is to rugby's immense credit when the absurd delay in football is considered. Fortunately, at its best, the round ball has a beautiful simplicity that is understood by all. In rugby, even the cognoscenti are condemned to serial confusion. Most calamitously, players of the greatest distinction and experience are also plunged into the fog.

That they did not finish up thoroughly lost was a fate narrowly avoided by the Lions in Brisbane. They can only hope that they will be able to see more clearly in Melbourne next weekend. Surely it is time to shine a little light in an extremely murky place?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
ESPN footage showed a split-screen Murray’s partner Kim Sears and Berdych’s partner Ester Satorova 'sporting' their jewellery
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee