The Rugby World Cup: A guide through game's grey areas

The Laws: Getting the message; Mark Evans suggests that the teams will need to think fast to thrive
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CAST YOUR mind back eight years, to the last time RWC was based in these shores. Remember that poor All Black team, Ireland nearly knocking over the Wallabies, the bizarre change of tactics from England in the final, those irritating Springbok fans with their arrogant banners but no team. Remember?

Now who would you say was the most influential man of the tournament? Campese? Lynagh? Farr-Jones? Moore? Carling? I would reject all of the above and beckon forward into the spotlight unassuming Mr Jim Fleming - international referee and proud Scot.

If it has slipped your mind - and unless you are a truly sad rugby anorak it probably has - then let me remind you that Fleming had charge of the very first game in 1991. England v New Zealand: Thursday afternoon, full house at Twickenham, dreadful game. In one 80-minute period, gentleman Jim whistled both sides off the park as he barked: "Stay on your feet, stay on your feet" incessantly. Whenever anyone fell on top of the tackle they got pinged.

As a statement of intent it was incredibly powerful and effective. The referees had got together and decided how it was going to be, and, for once, the man in the middle carried out the agreed policy. It ruined that one game - both sets of players were totally confused - but everyone else got the message. As a result there was a whole set of excellent games throughout the competition, with negative play kept to a minimum and everyone knowing exactly where they stood.

Since then, refereeing standards have, contrary to popular belief, become more standardised at Test level. Much of this can be put down to the criteria- based assessment system introduced by Steve Griffiths at the International Rugby Board. Although many commentators bang on about southern-hemisphere referees having a better "feel" for the game, coupled with a more laissez faire attitude, this is not borne out by the evidence. In Super 12 games maybe, but Test rugby is a different matter. Increasingly the top guys referee in a similar way. When one changes they all tend to change.

In this high-tech age all the leading coaches will detail one of their staff to pinpoint how the key areas are being interpreted, as well as recording any particular individual foibles. Nobody can be quite sure, until the tournament starts, exactly how the tackle law will be whistled or which defensive line-out systems will be allowed, but the successful teams will adapt quickly and amend their practices if necessary. Any adjustments will influence training drills. On the last two Lions tours Ian McGeechan spent hours drilling his team to fit into local "customs".

Also keep an eye out for subtle (at times even blatant) attempts to set the agenda by the coaches - particularly in the knockout phases. A concern about the scrummaging power of your opponents can easily be translated into a questioning of the opposition tight-head prop's technique three or four days before the game. Similarly, a pious expression of concern over "careless" use of the boot may actually be an attempt to encourage the referee to blow up rucks and mauls early, if that suits a particular game plan.

With the increased pace of the modern game there are bound to be errors made, and with no recourse to video replays - even for verifying tries - it is more than likely that we will hear cries for the increased use of technology to aid the referee. Indeed I would be surprised if these are not statutory by the time we get to the 2003 World Cup.

Meanwhile, all coaches will focus on Paddy O'Brien as he walks out to take charge of the Wales v Argentina game on Friday. He is the man who will set the tone, lay down the marker and stimulate hundreds of hours of video-watching. Once the ground rules are established everyone will be working out how best to use them to their own advantage. Adapt or die: 'twas ever thus.