Peter Bills: Referral technology could change history

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The Independent Online

Shock, horror! Rugby Union is embracing cricket’s third official referral system and there’s already a logjam of cases piling up.

New Zealander Colin Meads is challenging the long held assumption that the broken jaw of Welsh hooker Jeff Young on Wales’s 1969 tour had anything to do with him. Certainly, Young’s jaw came into contact with Meads’ ‘closed hand’ but who was to blame? What is a poor, honest New Zealand farmer supposed to do if some mad Welshman puts his jaw in the way of one of the great man’s limbs?

But alas, this referral business seems to have gone crazy in rugby. I hear New Zealand are appealing that Gareth Edwards’ great and glorious opening try in that famous Barbarians v New Zealand match, should never have been allowed. Why not? Well it seems that Phil Bennett may have broken the rules when he went scuttling back towards his own line and then side-stepped THREE times, making the New Zealand pursuers look complete fools.

The Safety and Sensivity committee have now ruled that making idiots out of sportsmen on the playing field is strictly forbidden and the new Act is retrospective. So Bennett finds himself facing a charge of mental cruelty towards three New Zealand rugby players. Quite right too – those poor lambs have never been the same since that dastardly deed of the Welshman’s before thousands of cheering, jeering Welsh fans at Cardiff. I dread to think the damages Bennett may have to stump up to pay off the claimants for their loss of earnings/damage and hurt to self esteem/sense of being a fool and inadequate.

Of course, it was all OK before rugby copied cricket’s example and brought in this damned referral system. The problem is, every Champion side of the last 20 years has now been stripped of its title, pending the appeals. Take Wales. Their Grand Slam title of 2008 is no longer, wrenched from their grasp because they had the temerity to overcome a 19-6 deficit at Twickenham last season and beat England with an overwhelming second half performance.

A couple of Englishmen who played that day were subsequently dropped because they were a) inadequate b) misguided c) dozy or d) crap, have now referred the match tape to the third official for a second (or should that be third or fourth?) opinion. Even worse, they’re claiming they suffered loss of income because Wales’ recovery made them look so inferior they were subsequently dropped, a decision which cost them a packet.

The Welsh Rugby Union is worried. They may have to pay sizeable damages, costing them tens of thousands of pounds.

Of course, just as DNA is trapping some long time serial murderers, sport’s splendid third official referral system is righting all sorts of historical injustices. Welsh flanker (why is it always Wales?) Paul Ringer, who was sent off in the 1980 match against England at Twickenham by Irish referee David Burnett for a stiff arm tackle, is asking for another opinion. If he is exonerated, there is talk they may have to play the match again.

Bill Beaumont, England’s captain, is worried sick. So would you be if you were 60-something and had to get your rugby kit on again. But what other way is there to ascertain exactly who would have won if Ringer had stayed on the field that day?

Pacific Islanders who used forearms to put all manner of opponents to sleep with a single blow may escape the slur that has stalked them ever since their alleged misdeeds. You see, those who were foolish enough to pass sentence did so without thinking about the effects on that poor victim’s poor children and family. Why, one Tongan is said to be suing for a sum that would buy half the islands in the Pacific because he says he’s never been able to put his face in places where he should have been all these years.

No wonder the IRB is worried sick. How the hell will they find the money to meet all these claims, should they prove successful?

But even if you leave all that aside, what concerns me most is the steady exodus away from the Test match grounds. Ireland played England in Dublin this weekend with just 8,500 there. The other 71,500 were there at the start but they walked out because they were so bored at every penalty kick and every alleged try being referred to the third official. At one point, it is alleged – I have to be careful with my words here – that third official was actually seen to fall asleep as he adjudicated the merits or otherwise of another penalty which the offending team had insisted went outside, not inside the posts.

Still, we all have to be pleased that no-one is getting away with anything in this brave new world of professional sport and no-one is being convicted of any offence either now or at any stage in the past.

So I say three cheers for that selfless, hard working third official who sits in his lofty eyrie and makes decisions about anything and everything. Why, the other day, he even asked for 57 replays of the pre-match entertainment featuring dancing girls in skimpy bikinis, just to make sure there weren’t any blokes in drag mixed in amongst them.

Yer dirty little devil, I say...

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