Referee at fault, not the players

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The Independent Online

The season has barely started and two predictable events have already happened. The first is that Leicester have marched straight into a commanding lead at the top of the Zurich Premiership and, secondly, people are complaining about the way they play.

The season has barely started and two predictable events have already happened. The first is that Leicester have marched straight into a commanding lead at the top of the Zurich Premiership and, secondly, people are complaining about the way they play.

Rob Andrew has led the chorus of protests about the Tigers deliberately killing the ball and trying to control games by constant chipping at the referee. Why this should be a surprise to anyone, especially Rob, I can't understand. Perhaps he felt that by going public with his views he would pressure referees into keeping a closer eye on the Tigers. Which, in itself, is a bit of the same gamesmanship that Leicester employ.

It has always been a part of their approach, as it has been for many teams and individual players through the years. Good teams always play to their strengths, however negative those strengths are, and take everything into consideration before a game - from seeing which way the wind is blowing to judging where the referee is coming from.

Leicester don't make any apologies about it. First and foremost, they go out to win. If they entertain in the process, that's great; if they don't, too bad. Their success speaks for itself, as does the fact that they were the only top club to make a profit last season.

Neither do Leicester's large and loyal crowd appear to be worried. What their supporters want to see is their side win, and they certainly don't get short-changed. And crowds can play their own part in getting at referees who are not deaf to shouts from the terraces. When you have the fans, plus players of the stature of Martin Johnson, Austin Healey and Neil Back, nagging you, it takes a staunch ref not to be influenced.

It is up to the referees to stand firm against the pressure. They have the whistle and the power to impose their will on the game. When Neath played Pontypridd last Wednesday, the referee, Hugh Watkins, was determined to punish the professional foul. He sent three players to the sin-bin and awarded Neath three penalty tries. The result was a very entertaining game.

Players will try all the tricks if they are allowed to get away with it, but they will soon desist when they start losing personnel and points. And if the referee is plainly buckling under the pressure, it is no use the opposition waiting until afterwards before complaining. They should apply their own pressure at the time. It is no use complaining about decisions, though, because that will most likely cost you 10 yards. You have to wait your moment.

When I played, I was a keen conversationalist with referees; always ready to point out little discrepancies, like you've given them 10 penalties and us only two. And when I was being caught by a wing-forward who was obviously living offside, I would appeal to the official's knowledge, "Come on ref, you know he's not that fast".

Officials in every ball game are subject to intense pressure from players, even cricket. It just happens to be that bit easier to get away with things in rugby. The All Blacks have long been masters of it. Their back row will start the game five yards offside, and if they are not pulled up they will play the whole game there. If the ref spots them, they will go back two yards and still be three yards to the good.

Successful teams take everything to the limit, especially the rules. I don't remember any Englishman complaining when Lawrence Dallaglio killed the ball against France last season. It probably cost France the game, but he got away with it.

Referees have the power to punish infringements and should be encouraged to use that power fearlessly. If they don't, blame them, not the players.

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