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Peter Bills: Referee poite a real worry for Leinster

French referees have been copping criticism since time immemorial. There is a file on them big enough to have dropped on Osama Bin Laden's complex and wiped out everyone in the abode.

Even the French have climbed into the sport of French referee bashing. Racing Metro's 62-times capped forward Sebastien Chabal recently described his country's rugby officials as "hopeless" and accused them of bias.

Expanding on his allegations of bias, Chabal wrote: "The guys (the referees) ... they don't even try and hide it. It is a pity for our sport."

Chabal accused the officials of favouring Castres, club of current Top 14 chief Pierre-Yves Revol, and Biarritz, club of his predecessor Serge Blanco.

So, presumably just to add a few drops of petrol onto the already nicely blazing fire, a Frenchman, Romain Poite, has been appointed to take charge of the Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Northampton.

Poite is 35 and has already followed in a long line of French referees caught up in the crossfire of angry coaches and players. To be fair, French refs have a proud tradition of making decisions which invite ridicule.

One of the best, years ago, was Rene Hourquet. He was a man who simply refused to get involved when Armageddon kicked off in French club matches. Indeed, on one notorious occasion, he was alleged to have turned his back on the mayhem and taken steps in the opposite direction, rather than sorting out the mess.

He was ever after known as 'Walk Away Renee' after the famous song by the Four Tops.

Francois Palmade, Joel Jutge, Christophe Berdos, Poite -- they are all French referees who have endured a firestorm of criticism.

As Saracens boss Brendan Venter said before the start of this season's Heineken Cup: "Referees in France are doing things in a very different way to referees in Britain and Ireland. It is a massive variable.

"When I watch French club games, the current directives are not being followed."

Venter later criticised Berdos, and was hauled before Heineken Cup disciplinary chiefs for daring to speak his mind.

So should Leinster be concerned ahead of Saturday week's Heineken final? Yes, I think so. Not least because of the fact that Poite has history with Irish props -- and Leinster.

When Poite allowed all sorts of fun and games to be performed in the scrum by Martin Castrogiovanni and Salvatore Perugini in this year's Six Nations clash in Rome, even the remarkably mild Declan Kidney was moved to concede that he had concerns about Poite's interpretations of the scrummaging techniques of the Italian props.

When he was asked his view of what had gone on, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt was even more explicit, saying: "Mike Ross did really well in tough circumstances. It doesn't surprise me that the Irish panel are going to ask some questions about how the scrummage was refereed.

"It appeared that Perugini released his bind very, very early and that allowed him to free himself to scrummage as he pleased."

regrets

Whether Schmidt now regrets making those comments, given that Poite has been appointed to handle the Heineken final, is a moot point.

But it's surely for referees to earn respect by their performances, not have it enforced by their refereeing organisation or governing bodies, just because they're referees.

We don't call Brian O'Driscoll a great player because the IRFU are jumping down our throats to force us to write that. We do so because he proves it just about every time he plays.

Referees should be no different. If they perform well, praise them (and I frequently have). If a player has a shocker, we say so. Why shouldn't we do the same if that applies to a referee, too?

In no way am I advocating personal abuse of referees. The sight of parents of 11-year-olds doing so on a touchline revolts me. But some referees at senior level seem to believe themselves beyond criticism, a view encouraged by some governing bodies.

That should stop. Poite and others like him have to earn our respect by their performances.

Irish Independent