Watson: penalty was the right call

The ruck over the scrum: Referee stands by his decisions - and heaps praise on the champions
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The Independent Online

They take the subject of refereeing rather seriously in South Africa. Ask Ireland's David McHugh, the victim of an on-field assault by an outsize Springbok fan during a Tri-Nations match in Durban last year. So when Andre Watson says that his performance in last week's World Cup final has received widespread praise in his homeland, it is worth listening to his interpretation of events in Sydney.

Within hours of arriving home, the 45-year-old former fly-half was appearing on a weekly television rugby show, and the following day starring in a celebrity golf tournament. "Can you call me back, I've got a few holes left," he said. As a three-handicapper, the man who has forged a reputation for being a stickler for the rules should have known that mobile phones are banned on most courses. If he was an England prop he would have been penalised a few strokes.

Ah, England, and those decisions which many felt almost cost Clive Woodward's men the Webb Ellis Cup. "Thinking about it, if it wasn't the tightest, most enjoyable game of rugby I've reffed, then it's a very close No 2. The Wales win over England at Wembley [32-31] in 1999 ranks right up there as well."

His critics call him a show-pony, John Cleese in disguise, but that view is not shared globally, and certainly not within the corridors of the International Board. Having refereed his first Test in 1996 (Australia v Canada), Watson has been entrusted with the whistle in the last two World Cup finals.

"I know that I would have been ridiculed in England had they not won," he said. "But I have no regrets, and I would risk my mortgage that the penalty decision against the England front row in the last minute was the right one."

Having forged a reputation for communicating with players during games - in a Super 12 match two years ago he implored the Wallaby captain, George Gregan, "not to ever speak to me like that again" - Watson is effusive in his praise for the world champions, and extended an olive branch across the hemispheres.

"I'll tell you what, they were a pleasure to referee, as were Australia. As for their style, they are certainly not boring. England play total rugby, not netball," he said, perhaps a veiled reference to New Zealand. "Along with France they had the dominant pack of the tournament, they are well-disciplined, they have a good leader in Martin Johnson and all the 50-50 calls during the game were accepted with grace and dignity. I do not have a problem with England. What they do is nothing new to the game, but they play to their strengths and have no weaknesses."

All right then, but what about those penalties, four of them against a front row that had not been blown en route to the final? "I didn't study videos of their earlier matches so am not commenting whether they should have been pinged before then or not. I don't take preconceived ideas into a game, I blow what I see on the field, and I saw four penalties committed by the front row."

So let's run through them for the benefit of the millions who are still puzzled. Of the 28 scrums in the dramatic 100 minutes, Australia were awarded 19, seven of which were reset. Clearly some dark arts were being practised in the front row.

29th min, penalty Australia: "The scrum went down on Trevor Woodman's side. From previous scrums I had noticed that he wasn't binding properly, and during the run of play I had spoken to him three times. He was listening, and even said, 'Yes, I am sorry'. So when he didn't bind again I had no option but to ping him. No debate."

57th min, penalty Australia: "The scrum collapsed and I reset it. Phil Vickery's body should have been parallel to the touchline but he was boring in on the Australian hooker [Brendan Cannon]. Almost 90 degrees. Look at the video and freeze it the moment I actually blow, not just afterwards when he has corrected it. That's dangerous and unlawful."

64th min, pen-alty Australia: "This is where the Australian front row popped. It was a binding issue again, Vickery had not gripped his opponent below the armpit, but above. But, of the four, this is the least clear, and if you say I should have reset the scrum, I won't argue."

79th min, penalty Australia: "If it's the first minute of a club match or the last minute of a tight World Cup final, this is a penalty. I have given them on plenty of occasions. The scrum collapsed and I called the front rows together. I told them to sort out the binding, that they mustn't spoil things as there were a helluva lot of people watching. I reset it and it collapsed again. I went round to Woodman's side and said, 'That's it, no more. Just test me'. I then said, 'Crouch, ready, engage'. The England No 1 [Woodman] didn't go down. Personally I think he had a problem, maybe his feet weren't set properly, maybe he wasn't happy with someone around him. But he didn't say anything. The Australian No 3 was driving into a vacuum and could have been badly injured. It's unsafe, a penalty every time. He refused to form a scrum after being spoken to. Where's the argument?"

Not that Watson has anything against Woodman. "I tell you what, he's going to be a proper loosehead. He has a good attitude in the way he plays. In fact this whole England side are a credit to the sport. They are worthy world champions."

Never thought you'd hear those words coming from a South African? But then that's the way Andre Watson is. He calls things the way he sees them.