Peter Bills: Relief as IRB give more games to top refs
A thoroughly positive story with which to end the old year and send us racing into World Cup year. The IRB have decided to put an end to the process of Buggins' turn, which has made the world of refereeing so alarmingly unpredictable.
In 2011, we will see an elite group emerge among world rugby's officials.
The tradition has been to spread the load, to give as many referees as possible exposure on the highest stages, like the Tri Nations and the Six Nations. But the results of this have been too erratic. The mistakes made by officials such as Mark Lawrence of South Africa this year have been so glaring, that they have had an influence on the outcome of Test matches.
In Sydney in September, New Zealand snatched a one-point victory over the Wallabies principally because Lawrence awarded a try to Richie McCaw, when it should have been a penalty to Australia. McCaw illegally detached from a five-metre scrum on the Wallaby line before the ball emerged.
It was a clear penalty to Australia yet Lawrence not only completely missed it, but gave McCaw a try from the position, when he crossed the Wallaby line to launch New Zealand's fightback.
Then, in November, Lawrence's handling of the Ireland-Argentina game was shambolic. It left watching referee assessors open-mouthed in dismay.
Under the previous scheme, there has therefore been the farcical situation of the world's best players sometimes being refereed by second-best referees. That was plainly unfair. It was also stupid.
On many occasions, some of the world's top officials have either been reduced to the role of onlookers on the touchline or, worse still, left at home.
Happily, all that will now change. The elite group of referees, those judged to be the best in the business, will be given more top matches. Thus, an official like South Africa's Craig Joubert will handle two games in the forthcoming Six Nations.
The elite group consists of five referees: Alain Rolland of Ireland, Nigel Owens of Wales, Wayne Barnes of England, Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand and Joubert.
I understand that there will then be a second-tier of referees who can also expect employment at the World Cup. They include Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), George Clancy (Ireland), Dave Pearson (England), Romain Poite (France) and the rehabilitated Steve Walsh, now of Australia.
Most of those not on these two lists may well miss out entirely on the World Cup. At best, they could expect involvement in a very minor group match but certainly not the crucial games.
It's heartening to see the IRB moving forward in this field. For too long, world rugby has been bedevilled by inferior refereeing -- the Heineken Cup this season has been a classic case in point.
Plainly, too many poor-quality officials have been allowed to take charge of important matches.
Another change at the IRB will see referee co-ordinator Paddy O'Brien given more say in the selection of officials. Until now, a referees' committee has held sway, even though O'Brien is clearly the best equipped in terms of experience to make judgments.
But what the IRB are doing is rewarding excellence among officials, which is exactly how it should be.
They are no longer pretending that there are perhaps 15 or 20 top referees in the world. There aren't and never have been.