"Been following the World Cup?" I said to the chap opposite, in a last desperate attempt to get a conversation going at a dinner party the other day.
"Yes," he said. "I've been following it."
"Did you see the France v. New Zealand match?" I said. (This was before Saturday's England v. France thriller.)
"Yes," he said. "Enjoy it?"
"Great," I said. "Very exciting. Not the greatest rugby in the world, but very exciting. Shame someone had to lose ..."
This is how I always summarise any match I have seen. It never offends anyone.
"What was the name of the referee?" he said.
"Pardon?" I said.
"What was the name of the referee? You said it was a memorable match. So, can you remember the name of the referee?"
I tried. I had a vague memory of a silver-haired young-old chap. But all referees are silver-haired young-old chaps.
"I have no idea?" I said. "Why?"
"Because," he said," no one ever remembers the referee. And yet if it wasn't for us ..."
"Ah!" I said. "You're a referee!"
He too was silver-haired, and old in a young sort of way, like all those ministers in New Labour cabinets.
"I am," he said, "and proud of it. Anyone who can get through 80 minutes in public dressed in black shirt and shorts, looking like a Nazi Boy Scout, must have something going for him."
"Hold on," I said. "Rugby refs don't wear black. That's football refs. Rugby officials have gone all colourful and stylish recently."
"Thank God someone noticed!" he said. "Yes, we've made a drive for acceptance in this World Cup. It's going our way. We've won our battle to be allowed to wear casual dress. We've been allowed to have radio mikes so that the crowd can hear what we're saying, even if the players can't, and we can show off our language skills to 80,000 at a time. Do you want to know what "Crouch ... Touch ... Engage!" is in Spanish?"
"No," I said.
"We're allowed to make signs so that even the players can understand us. And we nearly, nearly, nearly got our pre-match dance allowed."
"The New Zealand All Blacks have got their haka, haven't they? Samoa and Tonga have got native dances as well, to frighten the opposition with, before the game starts. The English have got "God Save the Queen", which they try to stupefy the opposition with. But what have the ref and line judges got?"
"Nothing," I said. "You're right. The least you could do is have a little routine worked out ..."
"We did have a routine worked out," said the ref, dully. "A war-like flag dance. Got a choreographer in. After the two sides had had their anthems and all that, it was our turn to line up threateningly against both sides. The touch judges had their flags, and the ref had his red cards, and for half a minute we did this beautifully rehearsed routine, backwards and forwards, a bit like three matadors, blowing our whistles, chanting and stabbing with our flags. Ending up with a blood-curdling cry of 'Off! Off! Off!'... and pointing to the sin bin."
"Sounds great," I said. "Why haven't I seen it happening?"
"We gave it a try out in one of the pre-qualifying matches," said my friend. "The crowd loved it. We got an encore, would you believe? We were cheered throughout the rest of the match. Every time we gave a penalty, they chanted our war slogan: 'What are we? Fair! Fair Fair!' But the authorities gave it the thumbs down and banned us from doing it again. Said it brought the game into disrepute. Disrepute! If they could see the half of what goes on inside a maul, they wouldn't talk about disrepute ..."
And my friend sank into a disillusioned silence for the rest of the meal, and didn't say another word, but ever since then my mind has been a jungle of images of refs and touch judges strutting their stuff through a threatening, thrusting kind of tango, while 17-stone men in beards cower away in terror from their advancing flag tips.Reuse content