Wednesday 25 April 2018

Tony Ward: Logic behind appointment of officials needs radical reassessment

The timing of Matt O’Connor’s gripe about the lack of neutral officials in the Pro12 was unfortunate but the thrust of his argument is spot on
The timing of Matt O’Connor’s gripe about the lack of neutral officials in the Pro12 was unfortunate but the thrust of his argument is spot on
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Hopefully there will be no correlation between what transpired over the weekend in the land of the leek and what will unfold next Saturday at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Certainly, as we enter phase three of Joe Schmidt's three-phase Six Nations plan, a timely boost for Welsh national morale, via a clean sweep for their regions over the Irish provinces, would not have formed part of the script.

Should Warren Gatland trump Schmidt in Saturday's must-win showdown, a link will no doubt be drawn between that result and the weekend's Pro12 scoreboard. There is none. So let's park that for what it was: a weekend when the home regions got their act together and the away provinces sure as hell didn't.

I won't delay too much on it other than to say Leinster were poor and Munster even poorer still. Ulster weren't quite as bad but still a long way from their best given the improvement in form and results of late.

If there was any sympathy coming to this side of the Irish Sea, then it has to go to Connacht. Over the course of a season in almost every sporting endeavour, refereeing decisions - yes, even for Jose Mourinho - tend to balance themselves out. You win some, you lose some.

I do not subscribe to officiating bias, particularly in this multi-media age of ultra technological efficiency and yet . . . there are two aspects to the weekend's events which are a cause for concern.

Unfortunately given the timing and given that it is Pat Lam and Matt O'Connor at the heart of it, both are being interpreted as sour grapes and an inability of Irish provinces to lose gracefully.

Intervention

However, I do feel Lam has a very valid point in relation to the touch-judge's intervention, thereby extending the game when it finally seemed up. That is an objection I expect to be further investigated by the appropriate authority. No, my issue goes much deeper than that.

Apparently, the injury-time we witnessed registered 68 phases of recycled possession for Cardiff. Fantastic discipline you might say, but since when did an 80-minute game become almost a 90-minute one?

Injury-time is now accurately calculated by virtue of the clock stopping during pauses in play (indeed, I wish someone pressed the pause button so much more during what is now termed 'scrum time') thereby removing that pressure from the referee.

If we want a 90-minute game then go for it but over eight minutes of extra-time (however gripping) is illogical.

The second issue relates to the call for neutral match officials to cover all Pro12 games.

Referees and their assistants should be above suspicion. Even Nigel Owens at his very best is bound to have his moments when his decision-making is called into question due to the place of his birth.

The timing of O'Connor's crib is bad because his team played poorly but the thrust of his argument is 100pc valid nonetheless.

I suspect the nub of the issue is finance-driven. For the sake of the competition's credibility into the future, the solution - though difficult to implement - is a no-brainer.

Under the current system of multi-denominational officialdom, Pro12 credibility is on the line. That should be O'Connor's main argument and not whether Zane Kirchner's late effort was ruled out (by an Irish referee with Welsh assistants) after Scarlets skipper Ken Owens apparently claimed he had been obstructed in Kirchner's surge for the line.

Despite the feebleness of the Italian challenge, the Pro12 is improving in competitiveness but there are fundamental issues that need to be addressed, and the rationale behind the appointment of match officials is at the top of the list.

Meanwhile, as the Wales-Ireland blockbuster comes into view, there are two significant links between the countries in Simon Easterby and Tommy Bowe (Gatland too but I'll leave that to another day).

Easterby's work is now in the background, on the safe side of the white lines so to speak. By contrast, in-form former Ospreys winger Bowe continues to do his thing at the heart of the Irish plan of action.

But his recent interview with Brendan Fanning in the Sunday Independent disappointed me, not because of what he said but because of the truth in what he said.

He was honest to a fault when admitting: "I'm happy to chase kicks all day if Ireland keep winning." Sadly, I totally get his point, but what an awful - and accurate - reflection on modern-day professional rugby.

Where do Gerald Davies, Ieuan Evans, Shane Williams or Simon Geoghegan stand in all of that? These extraordinarily talented wings wouldn't get a sniff of selection today even though Williams is only two seasons retired from the game at Test level. International rugby, save for the very odd exception, is now the land of giants. So much for the shop window of a game catering for all shapes and sizes.

As Bowe so rightly suggests, the bottom line at that level, from chasing and competing for kicks incessantly, is winning rugby. I guess it is the equivalent of Big Jack's 'put 'em under pressure' football of the late 1980s and early '90s. I would qualify that by saying that Joe, unlike Jack, has proved that his teams can win a number of different ways but right now precision, percentage, minimal-error rugby is the winning way to go.

So on the assumption Jamie Heaslip is back and firing, I'm going with the uber-cool Joe to make just one change for the Saturday's clash with the Principality.

U-20s try shows there's still room for magic

Despite our great winning run, this Six Nations has been anything but easy on the eye. Engaging? Yes. Enthralling? Yes, but aesthetically pleasing it is not.

The fault is not entirely with the coaches or the players but the game is not without hope and at Donnybrook on the eve of the England visit to the Aviva, the U-20s gave us a glimpse of what it can still be with some root and branch surgery.

England were deserving winners on the night but it was an Ireland try midway through the second half that took the breath away. With the most sympathetic pass, prop Jeremy Loughman sent hooker Zack McCall racing into space.

Quick and clean presentation paved the way for the most inviting pass from out-half Ross Byrne to man of the match centre Gary Ringrose who, in reading the defensive alignment to perfection, sent left wing Stephen Fitzgerald, supporting on the right, in for the most brilliant of tries at the Bective end.

Accurate and precise in its creation, clinical in its execution, I haven't seen better this season. Nigel Carolan take a bow.

Irish Independent

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