As two cultures clash, spare a thought for men in middle
Fiendishly difficult rules mean referees are key players in the action, says Eddie Butler
In my time away from these pages, dear readers, I have travelled high and low. I have been up Mount Kilimanjaro on the adventure of a lifetime and been washed by the monsoon waters of the lower Usk valley before the sporting milestone that was the Ryder Cup.
And everywhere I have been it seems that the rugby referee has gone too. We talked about him at 20,000 feet over Africa, and discussed him even as Europe's golfers demanded that there be no other topic of conversation than their advance down a knife-edge towards victory. You think you've escaped, but there's the ref, by your side.
His is not an easy lot. Just about the only line of common sense to survive the folly of the project known as the Experimental Law Variations after the 2007 World Cup came from the head of referees at the International Rugby Board, Paddy O'Brien, when he said that the whole aim was to reduce the subjectivity of the referee and thus make him less the centre of attention. It was a noble goal, but one missed by a country mile.
On Friday night it was hardly the fault of John Lacey, a former wing with Shannon and Munster, and now a ref on the rise, that Northampton and Castres should allow nerves to undermine their deservedly lofty European ambitions. There was nothing any referee could do to cure a Bruce Reihana duck hook, apart from spare him the embarrassment, I suppose, by awarding his side no penalties.
That might have been taking the quality of mercy a touch far. But in a tense game of fine margins, which Northampton won 18-14, it was unfortunate that he spotted a knock-on by Castres in the 57th minute when there wasn't one. And it was not to the advantage of the visitors that he generally did not reward their aggressive scrummage. Perhaps he had doubts sown by the tendency of their front row to drive themselves upward as well as forward in a straight line.
That would suggest a certain intent by the players to deceive, a part of the rugby furniture as old as a Victorian commode. Rugby remains a fiendishly difficult game to control and it seems the referee is going to be with us, wherever we go, for some time yet.
His burden is supposed to be lightened by regular cross-border exchanges, but you have only to hear a smidgen of what Matt O'Connor offered from the Leicester coaches' bench about French referee Romain Poite to know that these excursions improve a foreigner's knowledge only of England's robust vernacular.
So, when it comes to previewing today's two mouth-watering Heineken Cup ties -- Bath at home to Biarritz, and Wasps away to Toulouse -- I suppose I should apologise for thinking first of James Jones and George Clancy before any of the players.
Putting the referees before the players probably does not help the quest of the officials to be anonymous out there, but the reality is that, as rugby grows faster and the points of contact become more congested with players expert at not getting caught for breaking every law going, the referees are scrutinised ever more closely.
The only thing you might say, if this was a promotion of rugby refereeing as a career path, is that you will never be lonely. You will receive advice from all directions, and at some volume. As for today's two matches, well, it would appear that something of a gap has developed between the cultures of France and England. In accordance with the liberation of the attacking game, following the tweak to the law that makes the tackler at least pause before bouncing back into contention for possession, the game in England has run dizzily into something of an adventurous mode.
It will be very interesting to see, for example, how the inventive combination of Ben Jacobs and Dominic Waldouck goes for Wasps on the running surface of Le Stadium.
France, on the other hand, seem to have cranked up the importance of the set piece and ignored any new directive at the breakdown. The Top 14 has groaned beneath the weight of ferocious scrummaging and seems proud that tacklers still rule -- how good was Ibrahim Diarra against Northampton on Friday? So, it is free England against tight France. Bath are on the brink of doing something special, especially at the Recreation Ground.
It would be interesting, by the way, to listen in on a late-evening conversation between Luke Watson and Danny Grewcock. Would it be possible to press a wine glass against their force field? Anyway, if the old bruisers can withstand Biarritz's set-piece assault then Bath should stretch away.
Wasps might find it less easy to escape suffocation in Toulouse, and Florian Fritz and Yannick Jauzion might be the ones in the centre holding all the best passes. Still, it is an intriguing clash of styles. To think that the French long sought a measure of Anglo-Saxon discipline in their play, and here are the English, positively addicted to French invention.
It's delicious, and very demanding on the referees.