Sport Rugby

Sunday 9 December 2018

Assistant ref should have turned down Jones's offer

Van der Westhuizen's appearance at England training invites scrutiny ahead of pivotal clash

Joe Schmidt speaking with IRFU referee John Lacey this week. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt speaking with IRFU referee John Lacey this week. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Talking point: Ruaidhri O'Connor

South African official Marius van der Westhuizen wandered out of the dressing-rooms at England's Pennyhill Park base on Tuesday and into a storm all of his own making.

The 34-year-old will be on duty as an assistant referee for Saturday's Grand Slam decider at Twickenham, just as he was in Paris last weekend when England lost to France amid major concerns about their discipline.

To spend a day in their camp in between the two matches invites inevitable criticism.

Van der Westhuizen's impartiality and integrity are not in question. There is no suggestion that he did anything improper by holding the whistle or received compensation as Eddie Jones put his squad through their paces but his presence begs all sorts of questions.

However, the perception of neutrality and fair play among officials is as important as the fair play and neutrality itself.

Ireland did not have one of Saturday's match officials in their camp this week and, as such, are at an obvious disadvantage.

In a sport where coaches constantly talk about the fine margins between winning and losing, of the endless quest for the 1pc gains that can be found in the minor details, England have stolen a march on Ireland.

The IRFU had no comment to make on Van der Westhuizen's appearance in Surrey and his involvement in the English training session, but it is not a stretch to imagine that Joe Schmidt and his management team would have been unhappy to see a key potential decision-maker perform such a role.

Keith Wood summed it up best last night when he criticised Van der Westhuizen's attendance.

"The idea of having a referee in training with you is excellent, but who in their right mind thought it was appropriate for the touch-judge for the game that's coming up to be involved in training session?" he asked on Off the Ball.

"I mean the lack of foresight both from the English side and from World Rugby's referees, to allow that to happen, is a bit daft. It puts additional scrutiny on the referees and they are under huge scrutiny anyway. They do have a difficult job and this just makes it much harder for them.

"There's a case to say that, even though it fits into their rulings and they think it is allowable, I think there's a case for him not to be involved at the weekend."

The IRFU opted not to comment on the matter yesterday.

World Rugby are actively encouraging more interaction between Test teams and coaches and match officials to improve the game. It is a laudable enterprise.

Assistance

The coaches met with the referees before the tournament began and they all enlist the assistance of elite refs to help them get up to speed on the current trends. To that end, IRFU referee John Lacey has been a familiar presence around the Irish camp throughout the tournament, while experienced referee Wayne Barnes worked with the English before the tournament started.

That is a world removed from the presence of a participating match official working with one of the teams five days out from a season-defining clash.

Referee Angus Gardner would not have been allowed to referee an Irish or English session during the Six Nations because it could be seen to compromise his involvement, but there are no such rules for assistants.

That's despite their clear ability to influence proceedings on match-day, be it making decisions on incidents referees don't see or even stepping into the referee's shoes in the unlikely event that he succumbs to injury.

Van der Westhuizen's every decision will now be rightly scrutinised, but the reality is that the real impact of his visit to Pennyhill Park will come at the breakdown where England have been falling foul of referees in recent weeks.

Jones' team conceded 15 penalties in Paris last weekend, nine of which came at the breakdown. A week earlier, it was 13 penalties against a Scotland side who destroyed them at the ruck.

World Rugby see nothing wrong with the visit. They see it as part of a collaborative process to improve a team's understanding of the laws, but as Romain Poite memorably reminded the bamboozled English players struggling to come to terms with Italy's tactics last season, the referee is not a coach.

It is not for Van der Westhuizen to solve Jones' issues.

Six Nations did not respond to a request for comment yesterday, but ultimately it is their tournament's reputation that is at stake. Everything should be as water-tight as it can be.

England have broken no rules, but perhaps the rules can be revised to take in the entire officiating team.

If Gardner is not allowed visit the camp given his future involvement, then surely his assistants must be subject to the same stipulations.

There is a clear line. Van der Westhuizen's presence at England training blurs it. Perhaps he should have declined the offer or maybe World Rugby should take the decision out of his hands.

Jones in a mess all of his own making  as ‘scummy Irish’ comments go viral

As one of the most richly-rewarded and experienced coaches in the game, Eddie Jones should have known better.

His comments about Ireland and Wales may have been intended as humour, but they came off as charmless and while his corporate audience didn’t sound shocked, they weren’t rolling in the aisles either.

Known for his attention to detail, Jones should have been aware that his TED-talk style address was being filmed and should have known better than to have described the team that ended his winning international run as “the scummy Irish” and Wales as “a s*** country of 3m people”,

The 50-minute video sat on YouTube for nine months like an undiscovered bomb before being brought to the attention of the wider world by the Second Captains podcast yesterday ahead of Jones’ side’s clash with Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday.

He apologised within two hours, but will face more questions today. An unwanted mess all of his own making.

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