Peter Bills: Referee has a crucial role when England play New Zealand

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England are concerned that the referee for Saturday’s meeting with the All Blacks is potentially an unknown Bonfire Night week firework. Monsieur Roman Poite might go off in any particular direction but no-one knows quite which.

England’s worry centres around their fear that Poite, like so many French referees this season, will allow many of the old tricks and skulduggery at the breakdown. Justifiably, they point to the chaos on show at most of the French Top 14 matches this season where players have been able to get away with either killing or slowing down the ball at the breakdown, or even diving over the top in many cases without sanction.

Watching French club rugby this season has been like finding yourself in a time capsule. Did the game really change? Were new law interpretations really brought in to improve and speed up the play? Did not the All Blacks in particular, but also Australia, play some dazzling, attacking rugby in this year’s Tri-Nations under law interpretations in which almost instant re-cycling of the loose ball at the breakdown was paramount? If you have watched much French rugby, you will have concluded that all the above was a mere dream, an illusion, a fantasy.

The chief problem has been the referees. Always scared of upsetting vocal crowds, the officials have embraced these new law interpretations like a reluctant swimmer in an icy sea. They haven’t really wanted to get in there and be pro-active. As a result, penalty goals continue to remain the chief currency under which French clubs trade. Of course, there have been the odd exceptions but far too many games across the Channel appear no different to the old game beloved of the diehards where penalty goals ruled and kicking was omnipresent.

England have warned their players they will have to make rapid judgement on Monsieur Poite at Twickenham this Saturday and act accordingly. If it is clear he has had his collar felt by IRB referee co-ordinator Paddy O’Brien about the need to be draconian in his officiating especially at the breakdown, we may well see the type of game New Zealand have been working on for 12 months, even before they demolished the French in Marseille last November.

But if Poite demurs and shrugs in traditional Gallic manner at players getting their hands on the ball, England will have to play likewise. The losers will be the 83,000 who pay to go and watch the game.

It could and should be a magnificent spectacle. But that will only happen if Poite climbs into both teams at the breakdown and sorts them out early on, like Irish referee Alain Rolland did the New Zealanders in Hong Kong last weekend. Rolland penalised New Zealand four times in the first seven minutes of that game and they, like the Australians, got the message. He wasn’t going to allow anyone, Richie McCaw, David Pocock or anyone else to slow down ball at the breakdown or seal off the opposition’s supply. As a result, we saw a magnificent game, one of the great games of rugby.

This is what is possible under these new law interpretations. Far from ruining the game, as the old dinosaurs insist, they have revived it spectacularly, reminded us what a fantastic game it always was potentially before players started cheating and being allowed to get away with it. The interpretations have opened up the play and put the focus firmly on attack and keeping ball in hand, not kicking it away relentlessly and turning the sport into a sort of aerial ping-pong kicking contest.

England insist they are firmly embracing the new style of rugby. They point to the fact that try scoring was significantly up in the Aviva Premiership’s early games unlike in France. So are they worried? Listen to the words of a senior England official, who understandably preferred to remain anonymous.

He said “What is happening in England is different to Europe.

“All the referees and coaches in English rugby have backed the IRB’s directives, especially the one aimed at freeing up the tackle area in favour of the attacking side. But as far as other referees in Europe are concerned, some have, some haven’t. The English referees are very heavily scrutinised internally. But the referees in the rest of Europe are not as uniform in their approach to the tackle area. It will be crucial to adapt to the referee very quickly, in the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s game.”

That sounded very much like code for....’if Poite is not hot on players attempting to slow down and delay release of the ball at the breakdown, then players must take the law into their own hands and act accordingly.’

Ironically, that could benefit the All Blacks. There are few better in the business at getting their hands on the opposition ball and virtually killing it as an attacking weapon by holding on as long as possible.

The England official insists that is not how England want to play it. He told me “In English rugby, there is a massive groundswell of spirit to make the game better. People thought last year was a nightmare. Everyone in English rugby from club coaches to the RFU really wants the game to be as good as it possibly can be. But there are signs that things have started swinging back in favour of defence at the tackle area.”

It will be a Frenchman with a whistle who decrees whether we get the type of game 83,000 paying spectators deserve.