Heineken Cup laced with Whine

Times Column 6/11/04

When a referee gets noticed, the saying goes, he’s had a bad game. If so, then this season the refs are in trouble. Rob Andrew (who used to be such a nice boy) lashed into referee Sean Davey after only the second home game of the Premiership campaign. Chris White was booed at Welford Road.  The London Irish coach Gary Gold slammed refereeing standards throughout the league after his side’s one point home defeat to Leeds.

These kind of cry-baby tantrums tend to happen more often before Christmas.  When Andrew had a go at Sean Davey, the season was only three matches old and Newcastle Falcons were top of the league.  It was still possible for Andrew to cross his fingers and hope his team’s dismal performance was all the fault of the ref.  Four matches later and Newcastle have dropped to fifth. Their close encounter against basement club Harlequins now looks a truer indicator of their prospects, and not a result miraculously saved from a dodgy referee.

Just when officiating was fading as an issue, the Heineken Cup arrived to prompt more of the familiar whingeing.  Joel Jutgé was criticised for awarding 30 penalties in the match between Neath/Swansea and Munster. Perpignan had a pop at Nigel Whitehouse after their defeat at Kingston Park, while according to coach Mark Evans, Harlequins were denied their first win of the season by … well, it was the ref what done it.

At this stage, it’s still plausible for most teams in the European Cup to blame the daylight robbery of the referee. By the end of the pool stages, the excuses tend to dry up. The referees are forgotten as the truth is revealed about the teams we love, good or bad, and we conveniently forget the debt the game owes to the man in the middle.

Having said that, the cause of the referee isn’t helped by a misguided attempt to persuade people they’re human. This is a misconception encouraged by enlightened coaches and such humane and honest individuals as New Zealand’s Paddy O’Brien, who this week was publicising his refereeing autobiography entitled If you can do any better, sunshine, you write it. Not really, but every time you disagree with what he says, you get marched back ten pages.

The short-wave radio Reflink, available at Twickenham and several Premiership grounds, has also contributed to this humanisation of the ref. He speaks, he breathes (often very heavily), he stutters and gets confused.  Anyone genuinely interested in what a good ref is saying can save money on Reflink by watching any match involving Tony Spreadbury.  You don’t need radio assistance to hear him, and his reffing works on the principle that because he’s talking, he must be watching.  He talks very loudly, all the time, and he has the players convinced.

While referees are often perceived to be unjust, the Reflink has accidently revealed the greater injustice of players.  The most shameful performance overheard so far comes from John Eales in the 1999 World Cup Final.  Eales repeatedly bluffed referee Andre Watson that he’d take his team off the pitch (in the World Cup Final!) if the French weren’t penalised for gouging, a horrible crime but one for which on this occasion there wasn’t any evidence.  Four year later the same referee, Andre Watson, whistled the 2003 final as if the Australians were still about to take their ball home.

Referees at every level deserve better than the sullen admission that without them there’d be no game.  The best referees are stronger than 30 men put together, and even the worst is as good as the best of the players. It takes more courage to go out there and commit to an opinion than it does to commit to a tackle.  And more knowledge. And the less knowledge, the more courage, so that referees at lower levels and in developing nations are the strongest and bravest of all, even if technically they’re not the most precise. 

Let’s face facts: refs are special people. They have to be, by definition, because unlike the majority of normal people they don’t get their enjoyment from playing or watching. They’re different – they’re not human, of course they aren’t, because to err is human and even the smallest mini-rugby player can tell you that the referee is always right. Even when he’s wrong.

We don’t love our referees enough. Not that it matters. Over the next four weekends of internationals, we can expect to be reminded that the best referees couldn’t care less.