Touchline intimidation poses threat to referee recruitment

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The Independent Online

Despite the worst efforts of the South African official Andre Watson in last year's World Cup final - the rugby union equivalent of George W Bush's inept performance in the first presidential debate - referees are suddenly in danger of winning some public sympathy.

Despite the worst efforts of the South African official Andre Watson in last year's World Cup final - the rugby union equivalent of George W Bush's inept performance in the first presidential debate - referees are suddenly in danger of winning some public sympathy.

The refereeing hierarchy, increasingly concerned about the lack of numbers taking up the onerous task of controlling 30 unusually aggressive human beings trapped in a confined space, now fears that bad behaviour on the touchlines is making recruitment more difficult than ever.

Colin High, a former international official who manages Twickenham's élite referee unit, was characteristically blunt in his assessment. "We have massive problems on the touchline," he said. "Fairly recently, an eminent director of rugby told a fourth official to eff off - which he promptly did after taking into account the size of the person involved. In all seriousness, we have a major issue here. We wrote to Howard Thomas [the chief executive of Premier Rugby] about this last season, and we believe a spirit of partnership is in place. But unless Premiership teams clean up their acts, there is a chance of an incident occurring."

The sport has always prided itself on participants' unquestioning respect for referees and touch-judges, but the march of technology - slow-motion television replays, the multitude of camera angles and the introduction of big screens in rugby stadiums - inevitably leaves officials open to increased criticism. Several high-profile England internationals, not least Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, have been accused of overstepping the mark in attempting to officiate their own matches, and there is genuine concern that touch-judges feel threatened by the behaviour of coaching staff and sidelined players.

"There is too much chit-chat," High agreed, "and it has to be discouraged. It doesn't do the game any good. Do we really want to end up like football? While we have five full-time referees in England, we remain stretched, and once people of the calibre of Chris White and Tony Spreadbury are lost to us, we will not find their replacements growing on trees. We've introduced six officials to the Premiership in the space of 12 months, which is no mean feat. But it is true to say that the less experienced referees are coming under a lot of pressure from players and coaches."

Two Leicester forwards, the hooker George Chuter and the No 8 Martin Corry, have been cited for stamping on the Bath captain, Jonathan Humphreys, during the tough Premiership encounter between the two sides at Welford Road last weekend. Corry, in particular, is a candidate for England duty next month and the red-rose hierarchy will be hoping he escapes a serious ban when he appears before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary tribunal in Coventry next Tuesday. If found guilty, both men could be suspended for as long as 12 weeks.

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