Robinson's moan cannot be the last word

Six Nations: England coach's broadside at referee a sorry sign of shifting times and attitudes in the professional era
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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson was not only wrong, he was wrong at the top of his voice. His frustration at losing yet another Test match he thought England deserved to win was understandable, but there was nothing dignified about his attack on Jonathan Kaplan. Blaming the referee is one of the cheapest, as well as one of the oldest, tricks in the book.

Andy Robinson was not only wrong, he was wrong at the top of his voice. His frustration at losing yet another Test match he thought England deserved to win was understandable, but there was nothing dignified about his attack on Jonathan Kaplan. Blaming the referee is one of the cheapest, as well as one of the oldest, tricks in the book.

Two years ago, when Robinson was Sir Clive Woodward's assistant, England won the Grand Slam in the grand manner with a wonderful victory over Ireland in Dublin, and the referee that day came in for the highest praise. It was, of course, the South African Kaplan. Last week an incensed Robinson all but called Kaplan a cheat. "I think only one side was refereed," the England coach said, and he was aided and abetted by Colin High, the Rugby Football Union's élite referee manager, who should know better.

In the two seasons since England's triumph at Lansdowne Road, referee-baiting has grown into an inter-national sport, and a sad by-product of professionalism is that the disrespect shown to officials moves the game closer to football, with all its touchline shenanigans.

Who would be an inter-national referee? They are scapegoats, and already on the list of endangered species. A couple of Kaplan's critical decisions were of the hairline variety and went against England. However harsh the judgements, Robinson should have followed the example of Mark Cueto, who displayed an old-fashioned stiff upper lip after having a try disallowed.

"I wouldn't say we were robbed," Cueto said. "Some decisions go with you and some against you." Should he tire of rugby, a career in the diplomatic service awaits.

The Kaplan controversy has not entirely camouflaged the fact that England, ravaged by injuries, are going through a hellish Six Nations' Championship, which sees Ireland and Wales competing for the gold. The Red Rose fraternity have the Calcutta Cup to play for when Scotland visit Twickenham in the last round on 19 March.

Next week the world champions host Italy, also pointless, and the referee for that match is another South African, Mark Lawrence. The following day Kaplan, who, in the absence of British, Irish and New Zealand referees, is likely to play a part in the Lions series against the All Blacks, takes charge of Scotland-Wales at Murrayfield. The spotlight on both referees will now be unnecessarily fierce.

Ireland's 19-13 victory over England showed Brian O'Driscoll at his very best, the captain's try providing a world- class moment. Most players would have dropped the pass, which was taken one-handed slightly behind his back, and if they had managed to hold on to it they would have put a foot into touch. High said he would have disallowed the try because of an offside contribution from Shane Horgan in the build-up. It is as well that High is no longer a referee.

An unfortunate rule of thumb has suddenly interrupted the careers of piano players and shifters. Horgan, a member of the latter despite doing a decent job for Ireland, suffered a minor fracture at the base of a thumb which could lead to Gordon D'Arcy rejoining O'Driscoll against the French. That would not harm Ireland's cause.

Almost as few people expected France to beat England at Twickenham as Wales to beat France in Paris. Almost nobody gave Wales a prayer after the one-sided first half, but these Tricolores blow hot and cold almost in the same breath. Bernard Laporte, who was booed by the home supporters last weekend, and that was before the start, has tinkered with his squad, bringing in the lock Pascal Papé, the centre Ludovic Valbon and the wing Cédric Heymans. "There was room for a large victory for us," Laporte said after the demise against Wales, "and we have a lot of regrets. We lacked efficiency in defence." He spoke of working on the team's "mental state".

Eddie O'Sullivan also has some work to do after the Irish pack conceded a huge amount of possession to England. Even the line-out kings Paul O'Connell and Malcolm O'Kelly were fairly subdued, and in the back row the Irish could not match the contribution of Martin Corry and Lewis Moody. In their three defeats England have conceded only two tries, but Corry was their sole try-scorer in Dublin.

He has been rewarded with the captaincy in the absence of Jason Robinson. "This is the ultimate honour," Corry said. "It's come in unfortunate circumstances and I hate to benefit from someone's misfortune." Corry has made a magnificent comeback from his own misfortune, a dislocation of his right elbow.

The responsibility of captaincy, when England are going through their worst run in 18 years, did nothing for Robinson's game, which was all about spontaneous destruction. England have a number of options, the most obvious being to move Josh Lewsey to full-back and to recall Ben Cohen.

Wales are faced with a similar problem before travelling to Scotland, having lost their full-back and captain, Gareth Thomas. Michael Owen, like Corry a No 8, takes over the captaincy.

Meanwhile, Andy Robinson's Little Englander act has cast a shadow over his preparations for the remainder of the tournament. Far from making a formal complaint to the International Rugby Board about Kaplan, the RFU announced that Jeff Blackett, their disciplinary officer, would look into the comments made by Robinson and High. The IRB's code of conduct prohibits public criticism of match officials. Blackett will announce his findings next week.

Last year he exonerated Woodward after the then England coach criticised the Welsh referee Nigel Williams for sending off Simon Shaw against New Zealand in Auckland, although he reminded the Red Rose management of their responsibility to observe the code of conduct.

"I am sure the RFU will back off," Sir Clive observed. "Because Andy has done nothing wrong."

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