Time to bring in electronic help for overworked referees

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AFTER THE Lord Mayor's show, the corporation dustcart; after the World Cup, Leicester v Wasps at Welford Road. Maybe the comparison is unfair to the Leicester ground. Though it seemed to be in poor condition after only two months of the season, it was in no worse a state - perhaps it was slightly better - than the pitch at the Millennium Stadium for the final of the Cup.

Ten days ago the excuse was trotted out that the turf had not had time to "settle down". They should have thought of that earlier. The condition of the Cardiff pitch still strikes me as little short of a scandal, the more so as only a handful of matches had been played on it.

And the authorities had the bonus of a sliding roof, about the proper use of which, however, everyone seemed to be in a state of the utmost confusion.

The referee at Welford Road, Ed Morrison, was also a cut above the referee at the final, Andre Stewart. We saw, too, the now disregarded Tim Stimpson give an exhibition of kicking well up to the standard of a competition dominated by penalty and place kick.

Accordingly, it was dominated by referees, of whom the worst were the New Zealanders Paddy O'Brien and Colin Hawke, and the best was the Welshman Derek Bevan. My native land may not turn out the great teams of the past but, I tell you, we still produce the best referees in the world. If Bevan had been in charge of the final, it might just conceivably have been a more attractive match.

But even Homer nodded, and Bevan made a mistake in awarding a full six minutes of extra time in the South Africa v Australia semi-final. Two minutes had already been indicated by a chap on the touchline holding aloft an electronic board. This may have been on the short side. But the time to be played was nothing like the period which Bevan allowed and which could have given South Africa victory unless Australia - or Steve Larkham - had rallied.

Moments such as this (and several matches) apart, it was a disappointing World Cup. But it was also a highly instructive competition. All kinds of things were - or should have been - learned.

One of them is that, as Jonathan Davies wrote in the Independent on Sunday, too much is being required of referees. Thus, to obviate mistakes such as Bevan made in the semi-final, I would take time-keeping out of their hands. One or even two officials in the stand would be equipped with stop watches.

Personally, I have always found the sound of the rugby league hooter reassuring. I would like to see it adopted in the union game which has, after all, recently imported several other features of league, notably the flat defensive line and the destructive tackle. But if a hooter is thought to be too reminiscent of a dark night in Dewsbury, it should not be beyond the bounds of modern electronic technology to come up with a fair imitation of the sound of the referee's full or half-time whistle.

Mention of technology brings me to perhaps the most argued-about aid or supplement to the referee: the video replay. This is already used in rugby league. Cricket has the third umpire for run-outs, though not for lbw decisions (which should, I would have thought, be equally amenable to video treatment, particularly after the innovations by Channel 4).

In rugby union there is a lot to be said for introducing the second referee, with all the latest electronic equipment at his disposal. If the title "second referee" is thought to derogate too much from the semi-sacred status of "the ref", why not call him "the third touch-judge"? For that is the function he will be fulfilling for most of the time.

Already, touch judges play a crucial role in disputed tries. Sometimes they are wrong. They, or one of them, was probably wrong with Joost van der Westhuizen's corner-flag try against England in Paris, where he had one leg in touch a fraction of a second before he grounded the ball. It is, however, fair to say that, with viewing after viewing, experts still cannot agree about whether the scrum-half scored. So tries could still be disputed even with electronic assistance.

The final aid to referees is less controversial: that touch judges should keep a watch on offside, as they do in football all the time. Offside is the second largest curse of the game today. And the largest curse of all? Why, it is the inconsistent control of ruck and maul by referees. But that demands a column all to itself.