Xavier Rush: 'Refs have made it impossible to play the game'

The fans' favourite at Cardiff Blues, Xavier Rush blames rugby's ills on officials. He tells James Corrigan why they threaten to ruin his Heineken Cup hopes, and why he's tempted by a move to Japan
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The Independent Online

There is much to discuss with Xavier Rush, what with the do-or-die mission facing Cardiff Blues against Sale this afternoon and all the talk of the Welsh capital's favourite No 8 moving to Japan.

But one subject seems to resonate with the former All Black more than any other. It is the current debate over refereeing. Officials of a sensitive disposition should perhaps look away now.

"Referees are a lot more pedantic than they used to be," says Rush. "And what gets me is that they all seem to come from the same mould these days. Back in the day, you would know what sort of game you'd be in for – there'd be one ref who'd like it to flow, another who'd be tighter. Now they're all like clones."

Rush plainly does not agree with those who wish to place all the onus on the players. At 32 he has played top-flight union for 14 years and has seen the character of the man in the middle alter considerably more than those around him. "Refs used to have a feel for a game," he says. "And that quality should be emphasised more than the strict enforcement of the rule book. It would be nice if a ref could come off the pitch and someone would say to him, 'That was an amazing spectacle, well done'. Rather than, 'You had every single decision right, but it was an absolute ball-ache to watch'."

However, Rush does have some sympathy for those poor dolts who apparently spend 80 minutes a week either whistling or raising their arm. "Now that the referees are professionals they are accountable and I don't know if that's helping," he says. "When there are so many rules and when the refs are told to police them so strictly, it's hard for an attractive game of rugby to break out. Put it this way, in the last two weeks we've had two scrums that haven't been penalised – out of 20. It's impossible to play like that. It's not as if we even understand what all the penalties are for. I'd say at least 50 per cent of the time we are in the dark."

So what is union's route to enlightenment? "Some people a lot higher up than me need to do something and give the referees a little licence to get the game flowing again," says Rush. "Or else there's a danger it's going to be no fun to play and, more importantly, no fun to watch."

It might sound as if Rush has fallen out of love with his sport, but thankfully it is only a blip in the relationship. If his 18st frame and a square piece of granite that masquerades as a skull confirm he was born to play rugby, then a few moments in his company soon reveal that his mischievous trait is similarly appropriate for his profession.

The scene is the media room at the stadium the Blues share with Cardiff City (imaginatively called the Cardiff City Stadium) and Rush is in his element. The great and the good of the region have turned out for the announcement of the former Wales captain Martyn Williams' testimonial year, and as Robert Norster, the former Lion lock and now Blues chief executive, is stepping up to be interviewed by one news crew, Rush is in front of an adjacent camera. Seeing Norster, Rush winks at his interviewer and begins a mock answer. "Well if the chief exec would stop dilly-dallying and get a deal on the table I might be able to make a decision," says Rush. Norster flashes a look across but immediately recognises the ruse. The pair share a laugh.

It turns out the words might just have been serious in their jest. The next day the local newspaper quotes Rush as saying "the ball's in the Blues' court". He is out of contract in the summer and the BBC website has revealed the Japanese have come in. Over to you, Mr Norster.

Few in Cardiff believe the money won't be found. Rush is unarguably the crowd favourite, although the experts are as liable to croon as the fanatic wrapped up in his blue and black scarf. "Stop Xavier Rush and you have a glimmer of hope against Cardiff," says the former England centre-turned-pundit Will Greenwood. "Let him run, let him carry, and the game is done."

Yet his admirers may be aghast to discover that it may not just be down to the noughts. "I think I've got two good more years in me, so this decision is important," says Rush. "But in truth, there's not a huge amount of difference between the offers. You've got a market value and that's it. It's not a case of Japan offering me a sum that will set me up for life. It's not like that. There are other factors, among which lifestyle is probably the biggest factor. It's a case of weighing everything up. It would be hard to leave Cardiff, no doubt. It's probably the most enjoyable group I've worked with. I love the place."

And the place loves him, even if at the start of the affair almost everyone at Cardiff Arms Park only had eyes for another All Black. His name was Jonah Lomu and he just so happened to be making his home debut on that same night in December 2005 as Xavier Rush. While the former failed to score a try against Calvisano, Rush scored two and so the flame was lit. While Lomu was popular but not really up to it, Rush was popular and way beyond it. Soon the Blues of Cardiff knew exactly why the Blues of Auckland had been so upset to lose their Super 12-winning captain.

Half a decade on and Rush looks back with obvious pride. "The thing I'll take out of my time here is how far the Blues have come," he says. "When I turned up, we weren't regarded as one of the top teams in Europe. But we have managed to get through to the last stages of the Heineken Cup the last two years and last season came within a penalty shoot-out of making the final.

"What's changed? I'd like to say me. In truth, there's been some good recruitment, but more so some really good academy players coming through. It's funny, I remember the group I first came into and we are so much different now. Then we didn't play with the belief that we could beat the big sides. Growing up in New Zealand, that belief is inbred. As is the knowledge that if you don't perform as an individual it could be curtains. If you have a couple of bad games for the All Blacks that's probably it. Goodbye."

Rush is talking from experience that can only be described as bitter. In 1998, he won his first cap as a 21-year-old. In 2004, he won his second cap as a 28-year-old. Despite being the cornerstone of the all- conquering Auckland pack, Rush would earn only six more. "That tends to teach you that you've got to take your chances," he says. "There's no right to any jersey in New Zealand."

Is he saying there is in Wales? "In the past there probably was yeah," agrees Rush. "But in this new environment, where players are being produced and pushing for the places, I don't think that attitude's something they'll stand for anymore. Like I'm saying, so much has changed. When I arrived I did think there was lots of improving to do, to be honest. But with the four regions I did think that there was a really good pool of talent in Wales. I was right. Yeah, it is almost unrecognisable from then to now."

Yet not everybody sees it as an upward curve, particularly as far as the Blues are concerned. After such an agonising fall at the penultimate hurdle against Leicester last year, many tipped David Young's side for Heineken Cup glory this time around. But with two group games remaining, the table is not in their favour and neither are the odds. To qualify for the knockout stages they need to win today against Sale and then next weekend at Harlequins. And they will need to win big.

"Obviously it's been a step backwards from last year and the highs we reached," says Rush. "I look back at last season and we had to work really hard and dig really deep to win some of those games. Maybe this year we've expected to win rather than knowing we've got to roll up our sleeves and prepare for a dogfight. That's the thing about success. Just because you've done it before doesn't mean you can work any less to do it again. In fact, you've probably got to work even harder as the other clubs will be gunning for you. We'll have to work hard these next two weeks, that's for sure. We probably need two bonus-point wins. I do believe we're capable of it. We'll just have to play some rugby."

If the clones allow them, of course.

They came, they saw...All Blacks in Britain

While David Young is fearful of losing not only Xavier Rush but also another All Black in Ben Blair at the end of this season, the Cardiff Blues coach can at least console himself in the knowledge that two of his counterparts in the Guinness Premiership know just how he feels. In fact, Steve Bates at Newcastle and Richard Cockerill at Leicester would probably envy Young. The lure enticing Carl Hayman and Aaron Mauger away from the northern hemisphere is far more powerful than the yen. The New Zealand Rugby Union has made little secret of their mission to bring Hayman, the immense prop, and Mauger, the clever centre, back home in time for next year's Rugby World Cup on the islands.

Both remain undecided about what to do when their contracts expires, like Rush's, in the summer. But Cockerill is under no illusions of the fight the Tigers face to keep him. "The temptation for Aaron must be to go home because he missed out on being selected for the last World Cup," he said. "Since he joined us the All Blacks have probably missed him more than they thought they would."