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?

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Popes current and former won't be watching the football together
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting