Austin Healey Column
Time for referees to shape up
Austin Healey
October 7, 2010
Referee Chris White makes a call, Northampton Saints v Bath, Aviva Premiership, Franklin's Gardens, Northampton, England, September 17, 2010
Should referee Chris White be heading down the gym? © Getty Images

May I start by apologising for the delay in filing my latest column - I have been busy negotiating with Weight Watchers who I am delighted to say have agreed to take referee Chris White onto their books.

All joking aside, many of you will have heard me criticise the veteran official during our coverage of Harlequins' clash with Newcastle on Saturday for his failure to keep up with play. I'm glad to report that the ESPNscrum mailbag and my Twitter account have not been flooded with complaints which suggests to me that I wasn't wrong.

Put simply, if the quality of the rugby being played is getting better then the standard of the refereeing must also improve. I aired my concerns with one of the better referees, Wayne Barnes, during the game at Vicarage Road on Sunday - more of that later - and the fact is that even if you are just five metres behind the game it can make a massive difference because you can't see forward passes, knock-ons or all the smaller aspects which we can all see on the TV. The referee needs to keep up with play because if he's not then he risks getting the decision wrong which in turn reflects badly on him and the refereeing community.

And before you start wondering if I have a personal vendetta against Chris White for some dubious decision back in the day let me assure you that it is nothing personal. I will say the same about any referee who I think is getting it wrong. I have seen some fantastic performances from referees this season - Barnes, Andrew Small and Romain Poite have all done well at some point. If [RFU referees boss] Ed Morrison wants to give me a ring to discuss things I'll happily take the call and supply him with 80 minutes of clips that illustrate what I am saying is right.

I bumped into Chris as I was leaving the game at the weekend and he had already heard about my view of his performance. "I'm just off to the gym now," he joked. "Let's be honest now," I replied, "you need to!"

A couple of interesting things came out of the Saracens-Leicester game - starting with the Tigers' team selection which I thought was bizarre. The decision to rest so many frontline players raised a few eyebrows and in a lot of ways it was disrespectful to those supporters who travelled down to watch the game. Their argument would no doubt be that it was a close game and we came away with a bonus point but in reality they could have won that game with a stronger side.

Saracens went into the game on the back of the storm in a tea cup that was captain Steve Borthwick's no-show at the Heineken Cup launch. The headline-grabbing club chose to send him on a team-bonding trip to the Munich beer festival rather than take tea with a bunch of journalists - I know where I would have rather gone.

I personally love what they are doing at Saracens and the way they are ring-fencing their brand. Even if they deny to the outside world that they are nurturing a 'them and us' culture that does appear to be what they are creating and fair play to them. They are entitled to do that and it is helping to forge a tight-knit team who are looking good this season and it will be interesting to see how they get on in Europe.

Thankfully for them, the trip to Germany proved to do the trick with victory over the Tigers. It came largely thanks to another great showing from hooker Schalk Brits, who is without doubt one of the players of the season so far. There's probably not another hooker - or even back-row forward - in the world as good as he is with the ball in hand. I'm no expert on the scrum but his lineout work also seems good - so what he has to do to warrant selection for the Springboks I do not know. The trouble is he's up against the Boks' captain in John Smit who happens to have a 100 Test caps.

There wasn't such good news for Bath and England with an eye injury set to rule Lewis Moody out of the clash with the All Blacks next month. There's no doubt that Lewis brings a lot of energy to any team he is part of but I've always been of the opinion that there are more natural No.7s out there. There are other options in his absence with Wasps' Tom Rees and Leeds' Hendre Fourie in line for promotion. As for the captaincy? Nick Easter could get the honour ahead of Jonny Wilkinson or Mike Tindall.

I'm off for a break now but the rugby continues this weekend with the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup so I thought you may appreciate a few thoughts on the chances of the Premiership sides. I expect Northampton to coast through Pool 1 but Saracens look up against it in Pool 2 where I suspect they will finish second but not qualify for the knock-out stages.

London Irish have no chance in Pool 3 because I don't think they have got a good enough squad. And if they have got any sense they will rest some of their big names because they have got a chance of doing really well in the Premiership. Bath have got the easiest group and they will do OK, as will the Tigers, but I think they will all struggle to complete a Premiership/Heineken double.

It is not impossible but any team hoping to do that will have to top their pool to ensure home advantage in the knock out stages. To do that they will need strength in depth within their squad and I think only Saracens appear to have that.

And finally, two other performances of note. Watch out for Matt Baker and Pamela Stephenson on Strictly.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby

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