Woodward wants deal with Henry on referees

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The last time the British and Irish Lions played a Test series in New Zealand, they were denied victory in the first match of the rubber by a single blast of the referee's whistle and have never forgiven the official concerned, Brian Kinsey of Australia, for awarding a last-minute penalty to the All Blacks - a decision that flew directly in the face of the available evidence. If looks could have killed, the tourists' scrum-half Dewi Morris would still be serving time for murder.

Sir Clive Woodward has had his share of fun and games with rugby's law-and-order community down the years - the merest mention of Andre Watson, who took charge of last year's World Cup final, brings him out in boils - and has no intention of allowing refereeing to become the subject of controversy when the Lions return to the Land of the Long White Cloud next May. If there is going to be another row, Woodward would sooner have it now, hence the early discussions with the All Black hierarchy on the choice of next summer's officials.

Remarkably, Woodward would be happy to see a New Zealander control one of the three Tests, provided that New Zealander was a man with whom he felt he could do business - Paddy O'Brien, for example. By the same yardstick, he believes the All Blacks should be willing to extend the same courtesy to a leading referee from the British Isles. Chris White, of England, springs to mind, as does Alain Rolland, of Ireland. In such an event, the final Test would be awarded to an official from a neutral country: Jonathan Kaplan of South Africa, for instance, or one of the more acceptable Australians, such as Andrew Cole.

"This Lions tour will be the biggest sporting event of 2005 and it deserves the best of everything, including refereeing," Woodward said yesterday. "International coaches are used to adapting to different styles and personalities, but I would prefer a situation where the three leading officials in world rugby are together for the entire Test series. Whether we have one referee handling all three, or each of them handling a Test each, is up for discussion. All I want is the best men for the job, and I think we can all name the best in the business at present."

Woodward described the current dialogue with his opposite number, the All Blacks head coach Graham Henry, as "very positive". Should the two find common ground, they will recommend a three-man panel of officials to the International Rugby Board in the expectation of it being sanctioned. If the two men fail to strike a bargain, the IRB will make its own judgement, almost certainly selecting from a bank of neutral referees.

Whatever happens, the tourists will fight their corner on the issue. "There is no question of us accepting any official with whom we have a serious problem," said John Feehan, the Lions chief executive. "But I don't think it will come to that. Talks are reasonably well advanced, and while I can't predict when any agreement might be reached, we're hoping to get it settled sooner rather than later."

Having spent the last month following the All Blacks around Europe with a video camera in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, Woodward is even less inclined to buy into the popular expectation of Lions forward dominance now, than when he accepted the job. He pointed to the New Zealanders' 40-point annihilation of France in Paris as proof of them getting their act together up front, admitting that the display had left him with his feet manacled to the floor.

"That result was no aberration," he said. "The All Blacks targeted the game as their last major match before the Lions, and they put away a very good French side in real style. They are developing quickly, and it is even more clear to me now how great a challenge we face. It's the way I like it, though. Any coach who doesn't lose sleep worrying about being left behind is going to finish second anyway."

¿ The Scotland centre Andy Craig faces up to eight weeks on the sidelines after injuring an ankle in Glasgow's Heineken Cup match against Llanelli Scarlets at Hughenden on Sunday. Craig will miss the rest of Glasgow's European group matches.