The worst referee, by miles, in the history of rugby was Mr Alan Welsby of England. In the 1970s he refereed widely as a zealous policeman and, inevitably, games he controlled were dull penalty fests. I experienced him only once, playing for Ireland against France in Paris. At one stage France were awarded a penalty kick and their fly-half, Romeu, missed by yards. We all saw it and so did both linesmen, who duly signalled wide. That was not enough for Mr Welsby who, with a flourish, raised his arms and awarded the points. We were staggered, the French were embarrassed, but it is in the book. He brooked no complaint or argument. Everyone hated him.
In 1980 I played for the British and Irish Lions against the Barbarians in Durban. It was an important game as the final test was soon to be played against the Springboks. Selection for that test was on all of our minds. The referee was a Mr Harrison from New Zealand and it was clear he didn’t like me. I was always a vocal scrum half and he was a poor referee. Say no more. Late in the game, with us ahead, we had a scrum near our own line. It was a bit of a shambles and I touched down in goal for safety. The ball was clearly touched and we relaxed. The Baa Baa scrum half, Bucky Buchanan, for fun or bravado, dived in seconds later and touched the ball. We laughed but with a snide look and a vulgar comment in my direction the referee awarded the try. Maybe the red nine was an irritant but to this day anger still bubbles as the decision could have cost a match and a test cap; luckily it didn’t.
It was because of howlers like these that the Television Match Official (TMO) was brought into rugby. In the days of professional rugby, World Cups, careers and salaries cannot be decided by bad, eccentric or spiteful decisions. Fair enough but now it has gone too far. Referees are so scared of television evidence that they are afraid to make a decision. It means that spectators are deprived of enjoying the greatest moment in the sport; the scoring of a spectacular try. We have to suffer the endless re-runs and phase replays to see if even a minor transgression has taken place and a wonderful try is disallowed. TMOs have become as important as players and their personalities are becoming well known. Referees have become emasculated and in future might as well be replaced by robots. Watching rugby has become less enjoyable by miles.
The fault lies with television and the solution lies in the spirit of the game.
Commentators and pundits, these days, need to be seen to be strident and critical. Some are constructive, some destructive, but it seems that strong opinions are favoured by television companies even if they are nakedly parochial. Sympathetic, objective analysis as delivered by the late great, Bill McLaren, and in cricket, Richie Benaud, seem to be things of the past. The problem is that broadcasters need buy-in from Unions and so criticism of players and the game itself can be sensitive. Thus the poor old referees became easy meat. Brian Moore of the BBC is the worst offender. He uses his legal mind to find minuscule and meaningless errors that can be used to heap opprobrium upon officials. Thank goodness for Eddie Butler’s humour and good sense which acts as a balance.
In the very early days of the sport, captains could initiate objections to referees decisions as long as they were delivered timeously. Then it was decided that, in the spirit of the game, the referee was the sole judge of fact and so it remained for over a hundred years. We need to get that spirit back but also need a protection against the howler decision or even corruption. The challenge is to achieve this in a way that doesn’t compromise, ridiculously, the flow of the game as is the current situation.
The answer is to go back to the past where the referee and his assistants control the game between them. However, the TMO is still there to guard against the embarrassingly wrong decision; the howler. They can thus intervene when the field officials get it badly wrong. In a sport where almost every scrum, ruck and clean-out contains at least one technical infringement, minor mistakes can be ignored. Unintentional technical offences will not alter major decisions. When a try is awarded it will stay awarded unless there is a major infringement that has been missed. Television will be asked not to replay in super slow motion, to protect the integrity and confidence of the officials. Television and its pundits will be asked to act in the spirit of the game. Why not? They are an important part of it.
The key thing is that rugby will still be required to monitor performance using all the tricks in the trade. They will do this in private and it will be strict and independent. Thus referees will still be required to adhere to the highest standards but will not be held hostage in public. They will self-regulate and will be subject to regular review. Isn’t that how the best professions operate?
At the moment rugby and its referees are being paralysed by the TMO protocols. Get back to normal with strict private regulation and buy-in from broadcasters and we’ll have one of the fastest and most spectacular spectator sports in the world.