Sunday 17 December 2017

Watching the detectives

Recent games have shown how vital it is to stay on the good side of referees, says Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

O ne of the better lines from the rollercoaster career of Matt Williams in Ireland came on a crisp January evening back in 2001.

Standing outside the changing room at the Bective end of Donnybrook, the Leinster coach was asked would he like to comment on referee Ashley Rowden who had just played a central role in a game that ended 34-34, a result which steepened drastically Leinster's climb out of their Heineken Cup pool.

His pallor and body language suggested visiting an unspeakable evil on the referee, who had whistled his team off the park in the second half, seeing a comfortable winning lead disappear. "Aw look mate, complaining about the referee is like giving out about your wife to your mother-in-law!"

We thought about that one for a minute and reckoned that maybe the best policy would be to open an account with the local florist for the missus and her mammy.

The issue of referees and how to manage them came into sharp focus again last weekend for Leinster as they battled with both Saracens, who where chasing them hard if one-dimensionally, and Frenchman Christophe Berdos, who was getting after them as well. The closest we came to witnessing this live was listening to the comments of Victor Costello on radio as we drove back from the Munster game in Limerick. Costello was apoplectic at the way his old pals were giving away penalties and was advocating what Williams had urged that night back in 2001: let them have the ball and trust your defence to stop them doing anything with it.

So animated was Costello that we couldn't wait to get back and watch the re-run, expecting to see cutaways to Joe Schmidt in the stand tearing off his headset and jumping up and down like . . . well like Michael Cheika might have done. Not quite. Leinster are a bit sensitive to the notion that they like to give away penalties in the way our banks used to fund builders. Nevertheless, around the hour mark in Wembley they reached critical mass with the threat of a serious accident around the corner.

In the 60th minute, when Monsieur Berdos had just penalised Richardt Strauss for not releasing the ball on the floor, he warned captain Jamie Heaslip that it was the third penalty in a row that Leinster had conceded. Actually it was the fourth, but the fact that he was trying to count them was ominous. Hey presto, a minute later step forward the dynamic -- and he is -- Mr Strauss again, and the ref was reaching for his gun before the player even knew he was in trouble.

Strauss was a bit unlucky in two respects: firstly, that he happened to be the next Leinster player involved in a scramble for the ball, and by then it was clear that the next man in blue and white to break wind would be sent from the room; and secondly his offence (off his feet challenging for the ball) was far from clear-cut. Not only could he have survived on another day with another ref for doing exactly the same thing, but maybe 30 minutes earlier he could have survived in the same game with the same ref for doing it.

This inconsistency is what drove Brendan Venter at breakneck speed down another of his cul de sacs on refs and what to make of them. In this business we should never complain about the likes of Venter. In a sports world dominated by great swathes of grey, the South African dollops red about the place like a man trying to change the world. Perhaps he is.

We suspect his head may not have been in the right place coming into the game and for sure it wasn't there when the final whistle went. So while it may have been in the best interest of Saracens to let Mark McCall, for example, do the media gig that day, what we got from Venter was highly quotable -- if highly charged -- stuff about inconsistencies in refereeing.

And he has a point in general. With Mr Berdos, however, there is evidence of consistency. He doesn't like players talking to him, and when he gets on a penalty roll he really strikes a rhythm. Munster's experience the previous week was instructive. Denis Leamy attempted early enough to open negotiations with him and was chilled by the response. Munster only conceded nine penalties in that game -- seven of them at the tackle -- but what was classic Berdos was the sequence where they conceded three in the same sequence of play.

Perhaps this explains why Jamie Heaslip didn't try and break the flow when they were on the back foot in Wembley. Watching the re-run you wondered why the captain didn't try and mitigate the damage, but the understanding was that he would only militate against positive change if he opened his beak.

Interestingly, Munster had an entirely different experience in Thomond Park last Saturday with Wayne Barnes, Heaslip's pal from New Plymouth last June. A few years ago one of their number had a pint with the same Mr Barnes at the dinner after an Ireland game and declared with some surprise that "he's actually a very nice fella." On the field this translates into Barnes being approachable. Unlike Berdos, who thinks that people talking to him are talking at him, the Englishman is easier to deal with.

In the context of the Toulon game it wasn't critical, but it may well be down the track. Between them, Ireland's brand leaders have eight pool games left and when the refereeing appointments for rounds three and four are being made this week, they will immediately reinforce with the players the dos and don'ts.

This goes beyond the standard instruction not to annoy the ref. It's a critical issue because in a game with such enormous scope for referee intervention (an average of 180 tackles per game), frequently the man in the middle decides who wins. So he has to be managed. And because they are human, referees are not all the same, meaning the coaches have to cut their cloth from week to week. Does this give us consistency? Of course not, and sometimes that's maddening. But there are clues there if the coaches and players are prepared to look.

The most striking thing from the first series of games, however, has been that tempo is bloody hard to defend against if it is combined with a decent level of accuracy. And that doesn't mean running accurately a rigid pattern such as Saracens' play book. One of Venter's weaknesses is that, as a medical doctor, he places a huge emphasis on science. He analyses the game and looks at the stats and formulates a plan based on those findings.

Frequently this is fine and dandy, and for the early part of last season it was working nicely for Saracens who were leading the Premiership but very hard to watch. They cut loose in the second half of the season and it nearly brought them silverware. This term the goalposts have shifted again, and the evidence is telling him that the defending team are being refereed more strictly than the attacking one so if you hold onto the ball long enough you'll score.

Leinster messed up the plan because they refused to get sucked into Sarries' approach, stood off when they had to, and then used those extra men to make massive tackles on the gain line. That's fine if you're defending. What the game demands, however, if you don't want to fall into the hole that swallowed Saracens whole is to be more creative in attack.

It's still a mystery to us why more players don't break the pattern by attacking against the grain and isolating a front five forward standing like a wildebeest in open country. The quicker you play, the greater your chances of catching one of these creatures away from the herd. And where you have a mismatch, you have a potential break in the defensive line.

Lifeimi Mafi and Brian O'Driscoll are the best equipped on the Irish scene to do this -- one in solitary, the other in rehab -- but there are a few others who are good enough at it to make it pay as a policy, for even if the ball is tied up you have a better chance than last season of retaining it and starting again.

Defensively the first two rounds have yet to reveal a successful way of poaching the ball at the tackle without getting penalised. We have come full circle on this one, and through the first 24 games of the Heineken Cup the closest we have come to the first shoots of new growth has been the willingness of a few players to abandon the poach altogether and drive straight over the top of the ball. Courtney Lawes gave us a classic example for Saints against Edinburgh last weekend. It's a tactic that will favour the longer legged players who are susceptible to being flipped over if they try and poach at the breakdown.

It is positive, and when allied to poachers becoming more adept at staying on their feet then we will get more balance into the game which has swung too heavily in favour of the attack. Both Munster and Leinster look like they are thinking fast enough on their feet to come up with a solution.

The impression created by Munster is that in attack they are giving the ball a lot more air, but if you look more closely at their handy run-out against Toulon it might be that they are more prepared to run from deep that makes you think they are running more.

Certainly when they get in close against teams who they're battering, well they will continue to batter them. Last weekend they didn't have to do anything flashier with lineouts in the French 22 than drive them, so that's what they did.

By the time they come to the return leg, they will have to show more. As will Leinster, who are acutely aware that beating Saracens without having to think too hard doesn't mean the back-to-back challenge against Clermont will be anything other than enormous. When that comes around, Joe Schmidt will be centre stage given his connection with the club and its fans. Who will he want to ref that first day? Well, given that the two biggest games of the weekend will be Clermont v Leinster and Munster v Ospreys, Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes respectively would seem the optimum choices.

And if afterwards either Schmidt or Tony McGahan are talking about complaining about their wives to their mothers-in-law, you'll know something has gone horribly wrong.

Sunday Independent

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