Game's future hinges on refs getting tough
The future of rugby union worldwide as a game worth playing and watching rests in the hands of a group of spindly men in funny-coloured shirts with a large whistle stuffed into their tonsils.
Like 'em or loathe 'em, referees hold the key to whether this game is going to slip back to the sort of slow, dreary stalemate of the past in which cheating was endemic, or flourish in the style New Zealand produced in this year's Tri Nations.
We are privileged; we have seen the future of what could again be an absolutely magnificent game. It was demonstrated primarily in New Zealand's early matches in the Tri Nations and it was devastating rugby, played at high pace with skills to match.
Yet, the first eight weeks or so of the new northern hemisphere season have brought a disturbing trend. Most referees in this part of the world have been nowhere near as draconian in their treatment of players holding onto the loose ball at the breakdown and thereby delaying the supply to the attacking team.
It is an irony that most of the officials who ruled the breakdown in the Tri Nations to such deadly effect were northern hemisphere-based. But there is a rider to add -- they were the best from their hemisphere, the likes of Alain Rolland, Alan Lewis, Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes. And they had been primed to be ruthless on the miscreants at the breakdown -- Richie McCaw excepted, of course.
The trouble is, the lesser officials from the northern hemisphere, the second-tier men, have been nowhere near as efficient or strong in their interpretations. Thus, we have seen disturbing signs that the old tricks of slowing the ball down at the breakdown are starting to creep back into the game -- if they ever left it in this part of the world.
This fact has rung alarm bells among the game's authorities. Having seen the magnificent rugby that can be played if the law-breakers are hounded relentlessly from the field, this can be no time for turning back.
Thus, a vital meeting will be held within the next week or two. It will feature all the referees involved in the November Tests and it will be addressed by Paddy O'Brien, the IRB's refereeing co-ordinator.
O'Brien will lay down the law to the match officials that the zero-tolerance policy at the breakdown employed to such effect during the Tri Nations must be continued in these Autumn Internationals.
And although no threats will be issued, referees who go soft on this critical part of the game ought to know that the high-profile match or matches they hoped to be awarded at the World Cup next year may be given to someone else. O'Brien is a tough administrator and he isn't someone who likes to deliver a message twice when once will do.
Now this is all very well and fine. We can but hope the message will get home, not to officials such as Rolland, Lewis, Owens and Barnes because they got it loud and clear back in July. Rather, it is the likes of French official Christophe Berdos, who was ludicrously over-tolerant in last weekend's Heineken Cup match between Saracens and Leinster, who must be made to understand.
Saracens' director of rugby Brendan Venter was so incensed at Berdos' lamentable display, he is being investigated with regard to a possible charge of bringing the tournament into disrepute. That would be outrageous -- it is Berdos who ought to be up on a charge of failing to apply the laws in complete violation of the wishes of the law-makers and his own boss.
This is rugby's problem. Will the remainder of the world's so-called top referees, many from France or the southern hemisphere, be as assiduous in cracking down on the cheats as the northern hemisphere's leading representatives were in the Tri Nations? South Africans like Jonathan Kaplan and Craig Joubert certainly weren't, in the same competition.
If they are, we will see some quite magnificent rugby and a glut of tries. Candyfloss stuff? No. I don't regard it as candyfloss when a side has to make upwards of 120 tackles in a match.
Let those who chuck that absurd word into the debate try making that number of tackles themselves in 80 minutes. They might wish to revise their unwise choice of words.
But this will only happen if the referees are ruthless on the offenders. For the old adage still applies. Give them an inch and for sure they'll take a mile.