The Rugby World Cup: Hosts have strong man in the middle

The Lawman: Derek Bevan; Jonathan Davies says the leading whistle blower is a fine ambassador
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The Independent Online
MY FAVOURITE referees are the French, because they tend to blow the whistle for the kick-off and then put it in their pocket. But despite the fact that I favour the non-interventionist type, I sincerely hope that my countryman Derek Bevan has a very good World Cup.

It would be a fantastic climax to his career, in which he has done extremely well to build a global reputation. He has been a great ambassador for Wales and is the leading referee in the world, having officiated at more than 37 internationals during the past 15 years.

He hasn't managed to dodge controversy in that time, and came under fire in the last World Cup when he refused France a penalty try in their semi- final against the eventual winners, South Africa. But, considering the amount of top rugby he has controlled, his record is remarkably free of major blips.

It is not a job I would fancy, especially in a World Cup. There is so much at stake, and the referees carry a responsibility so enormous as to be ridiculous. One wrong decision can turn the tournament on its head and give the referee's record a stain that will last until eternity.

The situation is not helped by the gulf between refereeing attitudes in the southern and northern hemispheres. Southern-hemisphere players criticise our refs as being too fussy, picking up on everything.

This is in sharp contrast to their own referees, who seemed intent only on keeping play flowing in the recent southern hemisphere Super 12s tournament. This free-and-easy approach certainly helped to speed up those matches and give them plenty of spectator appeal, but the "let the game flow" approach went too far, and I am pleased those officials seem now to have struck a happy medium that takes more note of the laws of the game.

Bevan has been rated as typical of the strict northern hemisphere ref, his mannerisms regarded by those down under as a little blunt and schoolmasterly. But he was brought up on South Wales rugby, which is full of bitter local rivalries that can easily explode unless a firm grip is applied. Players pick up on a weak referee and mayhem can result; it is a very difficult line to tread.

It is also hard these days for a referee to blend into the background. Now they are wired up for sound you can hear them all the time, and some of them sound like old women.

The fact that Bevan carries a lot of respect on to the field helps him to be taken seriously. Players realise that he will fearlessly apply the letter of the law and are less likely to take liberties, no matter how hard-done-by they feel.

Bevan was already well established on the club circuit when I began my career in first-class rugby with Neath. It so happens that I was never a ref's favourite type of player, because I talked a lot during the game. I didn't try to run the game like Sean Fitzpatrick used to, but I was helpful in reminding the referee about little things such as the opposition being awarded more penalties than my side were.

Looking back, Bevan kept saying the same thing whenever we shared a game. It was "Shut up, Jonathan" - or words to that effect. But, generally, I think I got away with murder. I was never sent off, but I should have been. It is amazing what you can get away with if you carry the image of being a frail and under-nourished outside-half.

I was always happy to have a pint with the refs after the game, Bevan particularly. Discussing a game from the referee's point of view is always fascinating.

Perhaps we should hear from them more often. This business about refs not talking about games is nonsense. The more we understand their decisions the better. There can't be a game without referees, and the more important the match the more important they are, but we do nothing to help.

We happily criticise them but we don't allow them anything like the assistance we give ourselves. We gawp at video replays from every possible angle and then have the cheek to criticise them for decisions they make with the naked eye in the middle of the fray.

It is a thankless job, and I can't wish Derek Bevan any more than a successful, and anonymous, World Cup.