Referee's return hits England

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The Independent Online

When England left last year's World Cup tournament in Australia, they were of the opinion that if they never saw the New Zealand referee Steve Walsh again, it would be far too soon. They did not expect to encounter him this season, following the ructions he caused on a wild night in Melbourne. Yet when the International Rugby Board announced their appointments for the 2004-05 European Test programme, his name was writ large alongside Six Nations' Championship fixture between Wales and England in Cardiff on 5 February.

When England left last year's World Cup tournament in Australia, they were of the opinion that if they never saw the New Zealand referee Steve Walsh again, it would be far too soon. They did not expect to encounter him this season, following the ructions he caused on a wild night in Melbourne. Yet when the International Rugby Board announced their appointments for the 2004-05 European Test programme, his name was writ large alongside Six Nations' Championship fixture between Wales and England in Cardiff on 5 February.

Walsh fell out with England during their World Cup pool game with Samoa, when Clive Woodward put 16 players on the field and Dave Reddin, his fitness coach, became involved in a touch-line row with the official, who was meant to be overseeing substitutions. England, who might have had points docked for their misdemeanour but escaped with a fine, said Walsh had verbally abused Reddin, and the referee was subsequently ignored for a round of matches.

By appointing him to a Wales-England game, the IRB's six-man selection panel are chancing their arm. Chaired by former Welsh international flanker David Pickering, the panel have also asked Walsh to handle the Scotland-Australia game at Murrayfield in November, presumably in the knowledge that he reduced the Scots to a mass of quivering resentment when he controlled their World Cup quarter-final against the same opponents in Brisbane.

Alain Rolland, the highly rated Irish official, will handle the England-South Africa match at Twickenham on 20 November while New Zealander Paul Honiss will run the world champions' game with the Wallabies a week later. Of England's eight fixtures this season, only two will be handled by a European referee.

England's top referees, Chris White and Tony Spreadbury, both have games over the next three months. White is in Paris for the France-Australia match on 13 November and in Buenos Aires for the Argentina-South Africa Test on 4 December. Spreadbury has Wales-New Zealand and Ireland-Argentina, both in November.

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