Blame England not Steve Walsh
March 20, 2013
Steve Walsh has been criticised for his display during England's clash with Wales © Getty Images
I can already hear the 'One-eyed Welshman' taunts from some England fans but, sorry, I would like to applaud referee, Steve Walsh, for the best refereeing performance of the Six Nations.
Of course England are whingeing but the reality is that they were stuffed up front and at the breakdown. Crucially, Walsh allowed both to develop whenever possible and for that he deserves enormous credit. The result? A proper game of rugby instead of the stop-start penalty and free-kick dominated nonsense we had to watch for most of the Six Nations.
Although the prospect of a winner-take-all decider made the build-up to last Saturday exciting I was in deep despair. This year's Championship had been about as bad as I can remember - in the end there were 97 penalties against a measly 36 tries - 15 of which were scored on the first weekend of the tournament - an all-time low for the Six Nations and nine fewer than last year when the previous record was set. In each of the first three seasons 75 tries were scored!
I have no doubts that the blame lies fairly and squarely with the referees under orders from the International Rugby Board. They have ruined rugby this season and with European rugby being more set-piece based than the game in the southern hemisphere we have really suffered. The argument that the players must be culpable as well simply does not wash - with trigger-happy officials penalising before a scrum has properly engaged there is no chance to adapt.
The Scotland/Wales game was a farce. Craig Joubert, awarded 28 penalties, 18 of which resulted in kicks at goal - another record we could have done without. A huge number of them occurred at scrums yet Joubert never once tried to sort things out. Instead he just blew and blew, oblivious to the fact that he was emasculating a game of rugby.
I watched Joubert develop over several seasons on the IRB Sevens circuit along with most of the current crop of international referees and it is fascinating - if depressing - to see how they have changed. He was one of the most tolerant, patient and sympathetic. Now he has changed completely - zero tolerance is his maxim - and one must assume that comes from an IRB edict because he is the man who refereed the World Cup Final. In other words he was their top rated official in 2011.
I was never a fan of Walsh. Quite apart from the well documented histrionics for which he was infamous he always struck me as a poser, far too self important and narcissistic. But to have survived the disowning by the NZRU and then making it back on to the elite international panel shows real tenacity. Last year he was voted top referee in his adopted Australia and on Saturday I saw why.
He is still his own man and has a feel for the game that comes through in the way he tries to allow it to develop. It is so refreshing to see a referee reflect what anybody and everybody in the crowd can see. Adam Jones gave Joe Marler such a pummelling that he was pulled off after 44 minutes - Stuart Lancaster knew the score exactly. This was not the Welsh forwards being more savvy, they just won the all-important battle up front.
For once the scrum penalties were given against the side trundling backwards and going down or up to try to stop it. Walsh was confident enough to allow the scrum to develop and I would guess we had more scrums that ended without penalties than in any other match.
It was also great to see Walsh give a couple of free-kicks against Ben Youngs for refusing to put the ball in when the scrum was set. This is a really bad trait in the English game and you see it week in week out in the Aviva Premiership. If the opposing forwards look as if they are going to dominate most scrum halves delay the put-in and hope they will con the ref into believing the other side pushed too early. In contrast, Mike Phillips wasted no time at all and we even saw Toby Faletau able to go forward from the base of the scrum - almost unheard of these days.
The IRB say they want to encourage a contest for the ball at the breakdown and, again, Walsh allowed it. Everybody seems to accept that Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton comprehensively outplayed their opposite numbers, almost always getting to the ball first, but refuse to accept that they were then odds on to win it. Even my good mate Brian Moore, who normally knows when a pack is taking a stuffing, felt compelled use the word 'streetwise' about the Welsh forward play. I beg to disagree - on this occasion they were just plainly superior so England were punished as they desperately tried to get the ball - that is what happens when your opponents have 63% of the possession.
Walsh must have been doing something right. We had a cracking contest decided by two tries, the second of which was the try of the tournament for me. Faletau bashing off two or three tackles before finding Warburton, a marvellous burst down the middle and then, for once, the ball recycled and moved precisely and accurately with another flanker giving the scoring pass. Proper rugby!
So, a huge vote of thanks from me, Mr Walsh - you restored my faith in the beautiful game and rescued a dismal season.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh