Wednesday 13 December 2017

Refs prone to errors but real howlers are few and far between

sean diffley

Rugby referees, it is generally accepted, make the odd mistake.

On occasions they might fail to spot a forward pass, or to notice a midfield back running offside, or allow eager forwards to enter mauls illegally or prop forwards to act the Mick in the set scrums.

But sheer perfection is an accomplishment achieved only by saints and scholars of bygone eras. Rugby referees -- and I know this may be hard to swallow -- are human beings, subject to the slings and arrows just like the rest of us.

But real howlers? Sifting through my mind -- a shortish journey I hear you say -- I can recall only three real clangers: one at Lansdowne Road, one in South Africa and one in Cardiff.

That one at Lansdowne Road in 1968 was in the Ireland-Wales match and the result of an unfortunate error by the usually efficient English referee, Mike Titcomb. Gareth Edwards had a shot at a drop-goal which clearly went wide. But, whether Titcomb was influenced by Edwards' triumphant jump or not, he signalled the drop a success.

The players and most spectators knew it was a wrong decision and Titcomb realised he'd made a mistake. It is reported that at the very next line-out as the Irish supporters went ballistic, the referee told the players: "Lads, keep it cool, I'm in enough trouble."

And nobody on the pitch was more relieved when in the dying seconds of the match, Mick Doyle broke from a set scrum near the Welsh line and scored a try to earn Ireland a 9-6 win.

As it happened, it was conceded by everybody that Titcomb's error was a genuine mistake and he went on to referee three more international matches.

Then in 1974 it was the turn of Max Baise, the South African referee, to make a name for himself in the final Lions match of that summer's tour.

Those were the days when neutral refs were not appointed and Baise was the official in charge when the Lions won all their matches until that final Test when they were held to a draw, courtesy of Baise.

Fergus Slattery, one of the stars of that Lions team, touched down for a perfectly good try.

But Baise didn't award the try, claiming he was too far away and couldn't make a judgement.

Then there was that Cardiff encounter between Ireland and Wales in 1977 when the Scot Norman Sanson, en route to building a reputation as a tough referee, dismissed Willie Duggan and the Welsh lock, Geoff Wheel. A Welsh publication described the incident when the pair had a brief flare-up as "little more than an altercation of tea-party proportions".

Irish referees have generally been well respected, from the days of Kevin Kelleher, Paddy D'Arcy and John West to the highly ranked modern refs Alan Lewis and Alain Rolland.

But it's a peculiar world nowadays with the International Rugby Board referees panel ruling a strange roost and insisting on perpetrating confusing interpretations that have many more than referees sorely puzzled.

Include in that category coaches, the media and the ordinary spectator. And me.

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