For an English rugby enthusiast, there are few more glorious prospects than that of England clinching the first five-leg Grand Slam at Murrayfield, leaving Scotland with the longest-ever wooden spoon. On 2 April, that prospect will surely become reality. Yet the devastating running rugby that has taken England to the brink of a famous achievement has not stopped people carping about the flaws in the game, prompting one Sunday newspaper to launch a campaign to restore rugby's "warrior spirit".
It is an issue which Ed Morrison is better qualified to address than most. Morrison, 48, is one of the world's top referees, in the twilight of a career which peaked at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in 1995, when he refereed the "Mandela" World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand. We meet at his gym in his rugby-mad home city of Bristol. Did he officiate on Saturday, I ask, thinking of Italy v England or perhaps Wales v Scotland. "I certainly did," he says. He tells me proudly that he refereed a junior club third-team match. He is not being ironic. His passion for rugby, at all levels, is unconditional.
Which is why he has attached a condition to this interview - that The Independent publicises the referee recruitment drive (freephone 0800 834551). For it is a dream of his that every rugby match played in England should be run by a fully-qualified referee. Indeed, he laments the liberalising of the replacement laws, not least because, at the top level, the flow of players on and off the pitch requires the supervision of a fourth official, whom he thinks would be more gainfully employed refereeing a lower-level contest.
Personally, I would find it easier to split the atom than referee a rugby match. Even when I played rugby I never really understood it, which might be why I once captained a schoolboy team to a 58-0 defeat; in fact the referee blew the final whistle 20 minutes early, citing that well-known law, compassion. For Morrison, however, refereeing is a joy precisely because of the complexity of the laws.
"That's what makes it so challenging," he says. "A lot of people say we have to simplify rugby union, but if we do it will lose its characteristics. Rugby league is a fantastically dynamic sport played by great athletes but under a much more simplistic set of laws. I think we must be careful that we don't get too close to rugby league. I was talking to an old Lions coach recently, and he said the game is now the closest he's ever seen it to rugby league. He said he always coached players to run into space, but now they are in contact all the time."
In many respects Morrison is an unashamed traditionalist, who does not mind, and sometimes even encourages, old-fashioned argy-bargy. In a recent televised match he was heard telling a pair of scrapping players not to wave handbags at each other but to hit each other properly so that he could at least send them off. Gouging and stamping, of course, is a different story.
"And the latest one I'm hearing about is ball-snatching, twisting the balls. Unfortunately, the fact is that forwards in particular can easily do damage to their opposite number without the referee seeing. We've all refereed games in which we've been told 'so-and-so's gouging.' So you make sure they know what will happen if you catch them, but you rarely do. I applaud the touch judge who spotted it in that European game at Pontypridd. He did the game a great service."
That said, Morrison agrees with those who regret the diminishing of rugby's warrior spirit. "I played from the age of 10 into my early 30s," he says, "and it was always very passionate. There are 40 to 50 clubs in the Bristol area, so every game was a derby and very confrontational. The game is a lot more controlled now, and I hope it doesn't become too intellectual. I love it when there is a little bit of altercation, because I think rugby needs that. It should be a game of passion, in which you try to destroy the opposition both mentally and physically, breaking their will. But at the same time there is a thick line between passion and violence. Rugby has grown amazingly and with that comes a responsibility. To go back to what we had 30 years ago would be unacceptable because it is on TV all the time now and parents would say to the little Johnnies and Michaels, 'you're not going to play that'."
Why the little Johnnies and Michaels would want to play anything else is actually something of a mystery to Morrison, despite the fact that his own playing career - as a "not very good" outside-half for Bristol Harlequins - was ended when his jaw was broken in the first minute of the first game of the 1984 season, on his birthday to boot. He spent the next six weeks with his jaw wired up, unable to eat solids. Yet his eyes practically mist over when I ask him to explain the appeal of rugby.
"Thirty guys going out and beating lumps out of each other, legally and at times illegally, and then patting each other on the backs, going ra-ra-ra, and getting drunk as skunks together. To me, that was incredible.
"I would give up everything I've achieved in refereeing just to play. On the other hand, refereeing is a great challenge and good exercise. My first match was on a sunny September day. I had a nice runaround and then the home side bought me as much beer as I wanted, and I thought, 'this is heaven'.
"Afterwards, I always try to make a point of talking to the players. I learnt a lot from the likes of Brian Moore and Jeff Probyn. Probyn in particular would talk for ever. He'd say 'you got that wrong' and I'd say 'why?' and he'd go into technicalities about this wonderful den, the front row. For an international prop of massive repute Jeff was quite small. So he worked the angles, moving his shoulders and so on, and in his latter years he got a reputation for collapsing scrums, which was slightly unfair, and he would argue the case for why he shouldn't have been penalised. I think the younger referees are missing those opportunities because the game is not so sociable now. Before, you could glean information in the bar that could help you through your career."
I don't want to get too immersed in rugby's technicalities, partly because I don't want my eyes to glaze over while his mist up. Nevertheless, what does he think of the changing face of the line-out, which seems to me to have become a carefully choreographed pantomime? "When I was a player the line-out was a mess," he says. "It didn't produce quality ball. The problem now is that one side often doesn't contest the throw. Everyone keeps their feet on the ground so that they can counteract the drive. But I've been quite encouraged this season to see teams contesting and winning the opponents' ball. Previously, the first two props would face each other and as soon as the ball was thrown they'd clatter into each other. At least they're doing something more constructive now, and the ball is in play quicker."
Similarly, Morrison approves of the law changes introducing quick penalties, even in the light of Saturday's match in Rome, which some say was blighted as a spectacle by Matt Dawson's deployment of the tap-penalty. "I'd say the solution is for teams not to concede penalties," he says. "Nobody wants to wait an eternity while they decide whether to kick for touch or not. The law changes have speeded up the game enormously."
Enough of the principles. What of the players? Morrison has shared a pitch with virtually every top player of the last decade. Who has impressed him most? "[Lawrence] Dallaglio is unbelievable. He has all the attributes to make him one of the all-time greats. I thought Nick Farr-Jones was incredible. So was Michael Lynagh. They were the two best decision-makers I've ever seen. The best captain I ever came into contact with was Sean Fitzpatrick, because the control he had over his side was phenomenal. People argued that he used to manipulate referees but win or lose I always found him very courteous, even after the All Blacks lost the 1995 World Cup final."
Actually, by Morrison's admission, Fitzpatrick did once manipulate him. In a manner of speaking. It was a 1994 Bledisloe Cup match between Australia and New Zealand in Sydney. "Australia scored a penalty shortly into the second half to go 20 points ahead. And at that moment Fitzpatrick came up to me and said 'I'm giving you a warning, we're going to change the pace of this game.' I thought 'What do you mean you're going to change the pace of the game? You haven't even been in it yet.'
"But they did, and they stormed back, and Australia hung on by their fingernails. Afterwards, I was more exhausted than I've ever been. And by warning me he was being clever, because he knew he needed me to step up a gear. If I was slow in thought and deed I would have slowed them down. So he was a great captain. These days, the coach sits in the stand with a radio mike and radios the physio who gets the message to the players. But Sean Fitzpatrick made that tactical decision himself."
That thunderous match is not the first to enter Morrison's mind, however, when I invite him to recall the highlights of his refereeing career. Typically, he opts for a relatively humble First Division play-off match between Bedford and Rotherham, which ended 38-all. "There was an amazing atmosphere and my wife, who came to that game, said it was exhausting watching just as a neutral. I'm actually not a great supporter of the play-off system, but it was a privilege to be there that day."
And what, finally, of the day when the eyes of the rugby world were upon him? He remembers little of the 1995 World Cup final itself (in which he courageously disallowed an early South African try) but says he was "spellbound" by Nelson Mandela. "I met him the day before. I can't remember what he said. I do know that one man's presence brought something to rugby football that rugby football has never had. We are lucky that rugby encountered Mandela once in its history. I was hoping for the same spirit at last year's World Cup, but unfortunately the Queen didn't come on to the pitch wearing a baseball cap." Shame on her.Reuse content