The Antipodean countries may produce fine teams. But they certainly seem to come up with some lamentable referees

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Last Saturday, before setting off for Cardiff, I was about to telephone the bookmaker with a double on Wales and England. Then I hesitated and withdrew. I had a doubt; not about whether Wales would beat Ireland, which I thought they would manage fairly easily, but about whether England would beat Scotland.

Those who simply read scorelines or confine their viewing to the excerpts shown on television news may think my judgement was more than usually awry. Having looked at the video after my return from Wales, I am not ashamed. The match might easily have gone the other way.

This is not to detract from the English performance. Will Carling, as everyone has written, had a marvellous game. It is a great pity, though understandable enough, that he is not making himself available for the Lions in South Africa. Richard Hill may have solved the open-side problem which has puzzled England since the retirement of Peter Winterbottom. The English forwards are formidable, though Martin Johnson and Simon Shaw are not yet quite the force in the line-out that everyone expected them to be.

Nevertheless, the Scots might have won: if Rowen Shepherd had kicked a fairly easy penalty, so bringing his side to within three points: if Rob Wainwright had been allowed a perfectly good try; and if the referee, Paddy O'Brien of New Zealand, had not awarded England an undeserved penalty try. O'Brien cannot be blamed for disallowing Wainwright's effort. On television - showing that the camera really can lie after all - it looked doubtful from the back, where O'Brien was positioned, but unquestionable from the front. After the match, moreover, Wainwright himself said on television that he did not know for certain whether he had scored.

The award of the penalty try, was by contrast, indefensible. If backs encroach for the first time, which is all the Scots did, the correct course is to award a kick at goal. I had previously thought that the fashion for penalty tries, inaugurated by Tony Spreadbury at the Oxford v Cambridge match a couple of seasons ago, was confined to the Courage First and Second Divisions. Now that the contagion has spread to the Five Nations' Championship, it is surely time for drastic remedial action to be taken by means of clear instructions to referees. Alas, my suspicion is, on the contrary, they have been instructed to award as many penalty tries as they can.

The Antipodean countries may produce fine teams and accomplished players. But they certainly seem to come up with some lamentable referees. At Cardiff the performance of Wayne Erickson of Australia was only a slight improvement on O'Brien's at Twickenham.

Here is an example: an Irish player almost took Robert Howley's head off with a dangerous tackle - another area that needs to be sorted out - between the Welsh 22 and half-way line. Howley survived, and Wales progressed to the Irish 22. At this point a touch-judge intervened to inform the referee of the offence which had been committed several minutes previously. He whistled up, brought Wales back nearly 50 yards and Neil Jenkins found touch. What on earth was the point of that?

Still, it was an exciting match. Fifty years ago rugby coaches warned their young charges against becoming muscle-bound. Being muscle-bound was, it appeared, even more perilous than being a weakling. Even excessive biking could, we were assured, lead to this distressing condition in the legs. As for "body building", which it was called at the time, why, that was little short of a sexual perversion.

All that changed sometime in the 1960s, when "weights" became not only respectable but essential for a rugby player. Since then the process has accelerated. Today's players are fitter, faster and stronger. This is why compiling a Lions XV since 1971, or whatever the game may be, though agreeable entertainment for a winter's evening, is ultimately a futile exercise. Certainly the forwards, and probably the backs, of 25 years ago could not live with their successors today.

And yet... and yet... the level of skill has unquestionably diminished. The number of times someone from the Welsh front five knocked on or spilled the ball could not easily be counted. The Irish proved only slightly more adept. In the English side, it is a minor miracle when Tim Rodber manages to hang on to anything.

Even the handling of such a gifted Scottish back as Gregor Townsend is suspect. These faults are easy enough to remedy. All that is needed is a little practice. Accordingly my message for the week is: stop pumping iron and start catching balls.

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