These are game-changing decisions
John Taylor
October 21, 2009
Referee Jonathan Kaplan brandished a red card for Tonga's Hale T-Pole, Tonga v Samoa, Rugby World Cup, Stade de le Mosson, Marseille, September 16, 2007
More and more focus is falling on referees and their assistants © Getty Images

You will never find a player of my generation complaining about modern referees. There are still a few good old boys claiming they preferred it when players sorted out the problems themselves but they are, quite literally, a dying breed. In reality, the game has been cleaned up and is far better for it.

In my day the only time you got a neutral referee at international level was when you played in the Five Nations. When touring New Zealand, Australia or South Africa you always played under a home referee - it was deemed impractical and unnecessary to bring in referees from other countries in the days when teams travelled by boat and the trend continued until long after air travel became the norm - and, believe me, they were homers, almost without exception.

They were also characters and the most brazen I ever came across was a certain official from Australia who told me after a particularly bizarre performance when we [Wales] played Australia on the Sydney Cricket Ground, "Our blokes need all the help they can get and I'm the man to do it."

Two years later when I returned with the Lions he was there to greet me at the airport with the words, "Hi mate, I'm still a cheating bugger and I'm refereeing on Saturday!" In those days the touch judges were from the home country as well so, although they were not allowed to assist, you got no favours.

There was no citing officer either so you could get away with murder if you were on the blindside of the referee. Television was primitive but even then it was the all-seeing eye and that tended to keep internationals fairly civilised. However, a club game deep in the Welsh valleys where there was nobody but the referee to keep control could be vicious beyond anything you would ever see today.

If anything the pendulum has now swung too far the other way. Officials appear obsessed with the threat of foul play and gleefully seize the chance to leap in, penalise the offender and brandish a yellow card or, even better, a red. We saw a classic example in the Heineken Cup last Sunday at Bath. Matt Banahan clattered Mirco Bergamasco with a classic hit - the sort of man and ball situation defenders rightly relish.

Banahan is not your traditional wing - Bath's very own Jonah Lomu - and he lined his quarry up perfectly, deliberately sinking his shoulder into Bergamasco's torso for maximum effect. His arms went round the man, it was definitely not a shoulder charge, but it was so wonderfully brutal it was all too much for referee, George Clancy.

Without a moment for reflection his hand went to his pocket and the cheers for Banahan turned to dismay as he was banished for 10 minutes. Bath had been in control until then but lost all their confidence and the match. It was a terrible decision but at least it was made by the referee. My biggest gripe about the game at present is the undue influence of his assistants. Since they have been given added responsibility they appear determined to get more involved in the policing of the game to the detriment of their main duties.

Last weekend we again saw plenty of intervention on the dirty play front but there was one classic example of a foot on the line that went unnoticed - the primary function of running touch is obviously too menial for this new breed of 'assistant referees.'

When Cardiff's Andy Powell was yellow carded against Sale the assistant claimed his hit was late and he did not use his arms. As Will Greenwood pointed out over the replay (with withering understatement) it was neither.

My club, London Welsh had a classic case in an important league match earlier this season. From a line-out deep in our own half the ball was won, mauled and released to set up a scintillating back movement that went right and then left again for a wonderful score - or so we thought.

The opposition were lining up behind their own line for the conversion when we noticed a small group of players and a touch judge (sorry - assistant referee) with his flag out 75 metres back. After consultation the try was cancelled, one of our players was sin-binned and the opposition were awarded a penalty that they kicked - a 10 point turn around and we eventually lost by seven.

The incident was captured perfectly on video and in my opinion the decision was completely arbitrary. The referee had a perfect view, was closer to the incident and waved play-on. He was right - a couple of forwards went for their handbags and the man who was binned stepped in between them grabbing the main offender.

Now the referee had to make a decision. Should he overrule his assistant or should he show solidarity? He backed up his colleague even though he appeared intent on influencing the outcome of the game.

So this is a plea to referees and, particularly, referees' assistants. Stop and think for a moment before you blow the whistle or stick out your flag. None of us condone dirty play but these are game changing decisions - and, like the marriage vows, should not be undertaken lightly.

John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNScrum

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