Visionary deal will give rugby refs free eye tests

As any dedicated sports fan will attest, there are two kinds of referee: the one-eyed and the blind. Welsh rugby officials have traditionally been considered more optically challenged than most – that, at least, is the way English supporters see it – so the announcement yesterday that the whistle-blowers from the valleys will be sponsored by a chain of opticians was welcome.

Specsavers, a company founded by the former Llanelli player Doug Perkins, has stumped up £1m to display the firm's name on referees' shirts for the next four seasons. Naturally, his company will also offer free eye tests to leading officials.

"As well as providing much-needed financial help, this will bring some traditional humour back to the terraces," said Clive Norling, the Welsh Rugby Union's refereeing director and a former international official, whose eyesight was questioned almost as regularly as his parentage.

Mr Norling also thinks that the deal will help to slow the decline in referee numbers in Wales, where attendances on coaching courses are down by 50 per cent. "Verbal abuse ... by coaches and spectators has contributed hugely to the problem," he said.

Generally, rugby officials have it easy compared with their counterparts in football, who are abused by players as well as the public. But there has been the odd crack in the code of respect. The Irish official David McHugh suffered a dislocated shoulder when attacked on the pitch by a South African fan during a Test match in Durban last month.

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