Woodman: the referee nearly blew it for us

The ruck over the scrum: England's front row lament 'baffling' decisions in final that forced them to switch tactics

England were plainly and genuinely baffled by Andre Watson's refereeing of the scrum in the World Cup final, so we can almost certainly rule out a dastardly plot among prop forwards to steal Jonny Wilkinson's thunder and make the front-row union look interesting for a change.

Clive Woodward has ruled out a formal complaint over Watson, but there is little doubt that, if England had lost in Sydney, all hell would have broken loose, with Watson and his No 2 touch judge, Paul Honiss of New Zealand, first in the firing line.

Trevor Woodman, who conceded the 79th-minute penalty that took the match into extra time, returned to Gloucester on Wednesday. England's loosehead prop said bluntly: "I didn't know what he [Watson] was on about and I still don't. If it had cost us the World Cup we'd have been devastated."

The so-called "dark arts" of the scrum by their nature provoke controversy. A dominant forward pack can under-mine their opposite numbers, physically and mentally, and put their team on the front foot. England believed their set-piece domination of the Wallabies in the final was unfairly reduced. Woodman and his Gloucester team-mate in the front row, Phil Vickery, revealed they had questioned Watson when walking off at half-time after several run-ins with the referee led to a 29th- minute penalty against Woodman for taking the scrum down. "There were messages coming on from the touch judge that my binding wasn't correct," said Woodman. "It was always correct on our ball, we were going forward on our ball, no problem. When it got to their ball, we wanted to drive them off it or disrupt them in some way, and it was just never possible."

Matters got worse in the second half, when England very nearly saw a zillion man-hours of preparation disappear in three puffs of Watson's whistle. The South African awarded scrum penalties three times between the 57th and 79th minutes, one of which resulted in three points, as Australia, from trailing 14-5, levelled at 14-14.

"When it came to extra time," Woodman said, "we basically stuck to steady scrummaging, not going for any big drives on their ball. Just keep it steady, don't give away any penalties. It was the only thing you could do. If we kept giving away penalties, we could have lost the game. We had to keep it squeaky clean."

Watson spoke to both front rows after 59 minutes, soon after Vickery was whistled up for boring in on Wallaby hooker Jeremy Paul. What did Watson say? "Can't remember, mate," shrugged Vickery. "Something about, 'This has got to work'." Within a few minutes Woodman was in trouble again for incorrect binding. This was the decision, though not in goal-kicking range, which ratcheted up the sense of injustice.

There has not been a prop born who concedes their opposite number got the best of them. "Go up, go down, but never go backwards," as Jason Leonard, who came on for Vickery in extra time, likes to put it. But Woodman and Vickery, far from pointing a finger at all Tri-Nations referees, report instead a particular perplexity with the handling of the final. "All I know," said Vickery, "is that in six games previous to that we gave away, I think, one scrummaging free-kick, and another two from scuffles. So there had been one technical infringement. What's baffling us is why suddenly when it came to final time, even after speaking to Andre beforehand, we were penalised a lot."

Woodman added: "Paddy O'Brien [another New Zealander, and No 1 touch judge for the final] had reffed us the week before, and he had no problems. You don't want to be asking the ref what's going on. You've got your captain there to talk."

The captain, Martin Johnson, did indeed have his say. The climactic scrum on normal time, with England leading 14-11, had already been reset once. In the England front row, Vickery and hooker Steve Thompson crouched ready for the hit against Bill Young and Paul. But Woodman, believing the Wallaby tighthead Al Baxter had engaged early, stayed standing. Penalty. "You've got to ping the 3," shouted Johnson to Watson, who was next to Vickery. From Woodman, back in Gloucester, a dollop of understatement: "That was quite a stressful moment," he said. "He could have reset it, he chose not to and it was a big call. It was difficult because we were about 40 seconds away from winning it. It was hard then, trying to compose myself for extra time."

With England's rigorous fitness regime of the summer paying dividends and Wilkinson's drop of genius to finish it off, the final act placed Woodman on centre stage once more. "For some silly reason I was in the wrong place on the pitch and had to catch the [last] kick-off. The best bit was seeing Mike Catt kick it into touch."

Though Vickery denied that the scrum is being depowered, the differences in interpretation among the world's 20 or so professional whistlers continue to frustrate. Ironically, Honiss began 2003 on the end of severe criticism from France for not allowing them to scrummage effectively against England at Twickenham. And the controversy will rumble on. Woodward on Friday predicted "a wide-ranging discussion... aimed at improving the understanding and communication between officials and international Test teams" when he attends an IRB conference for coaches and referees in January.

In the midst of the Sydney celebrations, Woodward's assistant, Andy Robinson, had a brief word with Watson but was told to "take a look at the video". For once in England's well-ordered lives, the video has been left to wait. And, as Woodman pointed out with a smile, without that late penalty, there would have been no extra time - and no Wilkinson drop goal.

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