So, the much-debated Heineken Cup has started then and I have to say the opening two rounds were top-drawer. Several excellent matches, some close encounters and a welcome increase in competition across the board. All in all, it was a thoroughly entertaining couple of weekends: entertaining but bittersweet. The very idea that this tournament could be in its death throes is as much ludicrous as it is tragic. I’ve ranted enough about this subject over the last few months so I won’t waste another blog post on it, but it did sadden me to think that the (quite literally) biggest trophy in European club rugby will be lifted for the last time next May. That said, at least it looks like there will be a European competition of some kind next season following the Celtic and Italian Unions’ agreement to meet the demands of English and French clubs regarding qualification and distribution of finance. The tricky issues of governance and broadcasting rights still have to be thrashed out though and if the last two weekends have told us anything it’s that European competition is too good to lose. So come on the suits, don’t fall at the final hurdle.
[Rant officially over]
For the Welsh sides it was a pretty good second weekend with a win, a draw and a loss. Now that might sound like the very definition of ‘average’ but let’s not forget that the recent history of the Welsh in Europe doesn’t make pretty reading. Last season, for example, was the worst collective showing of our rugby representatives in over a decade. As such, the events of Round Two should be celebrated. Granted there was little to celebrate at Franklin’s Gardens where the Ospreys moved ever closer to an early exit thanks to a game plan that looked one-paced and one-dimensional. In contrast, the Blues produced a stunning win over über-rich current holders Toulon which makes their four-try bonus point at Sandy Park last week look like an important gain. They may still be bottom of pool two but they’re only one point off leaders Exeter (a stat you wouldn’t have predicted after last week’s embarrassing loss to the Chiefs). The Scarlets too are going strong following their away win over Harlequins and home draw against Racing Metro 92. No doubt they would have bitten your hand off before the start of the tournament if you had offered them six points and a top-of-the-pool standing after two games. It was a topsy-turvy sort of affair at Stradey Park against the Parisians: the French ran into an early ten point lead, only for the Llanelli lads to build a thirteen point lead of their own. The game ended with a late Racing charge culminating in the full-time draw. In all honesty the Scarlets can count themselves lucky not to have lost it in the dying seconds as referee Neil Paterson adjudged Jonathan Sexton’s ripping of the ball in a tackle to be a knock-on and, as such, the subsequent try invalid. It was a decision that caused a bit of debate after the game, with many pundits dusting off the law book to see whether the call was correct. Final verdict: I’ve seen them given.
Paterson’s late call was a timely reminder of how important the referee has become in professional rugby. Top-flight matches are increasingly decided by the odd score meaning the onus on the man in the middle getting his calls right is greater than ever. A good referee is worth his weight in gold, not just for the competing sides (who will expect to be given a fair crack of the whip) but also for the supporters who will (rightly) expect the ref to manage the game as a spectacle. The worst referees are the ones who forget that rugby is a form of entertainment and not an eighty-minute exercise in obedience to a lengthy set of rules.
What I’m talking about here is game-management rather than interpretation. The fact that the laws of our game are open to interpretation is what makes the sport great. Yes, it can be frustrating when the fella with the whistle sees things differently to you but that’s a price worth paying for a game that looks simple from the outside but has a satisfyingly complex core. Rugby is a sport that rewards its followers for investing time in getting to know the rules. Sure, you can enjoy rugby without knowing the intricacies of the ruck, maul and scrum, but it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable if you do. For a start, it enables you to understand why a referee has made a decision and then to judge whether, by your interpretation, his call was correct. No, I’ve got no problem with interpretation in rugby.
However, there is nothing worse than an overly-officious rugby referee – the kind of chap who likes to brag about his extensive knowledge of the laws by blowing-up (and penalising) for every slight misdemeanour. These types ruin games. Romain Poite’s handling of the New Zealand vs. South Africa match last month comes to mind here, when he regrettably sin-binned Bismarck du Plessis for an excellent tackle on Dan Carter. The error of that call was compounded by a (overly-officious) second yellow card early in the second half which meant that the Springbok hooker received a red. The game, as a spectacle, was ruined. Compare that to the glorious return fixture in Johannesburg a few weeks back which has been described as the ‘Match of the Century’. It was a fantastic game due, in no small part, to the intelligent and fair game-management of referee Nigel Owens. Owens, who took charge of his 100th Celtic League game last Friday, is in the form of his life right now and could be argued to be the world’s best. Why? Because he knows when to let a game flow and when to step in.
I’ll let you into a little secret: in my university years I had plans to become a rugby referee, such was (and still is) my geeky fascination with the law book. I even booked myself onto a refereeing course, only to go to the wrong venue and miss the whole thing. Certain people are cut out to be referees and I (based on geography alone) probably wasn’t. It’s an increasingly difficult job and I respect those who put themselves forward. But, as fans, we should demand that these custodians of play approach games with an awareness of their duty to the crowd and not just the law book. The Autumn Internationals will soon be upon us and certain games are likely to go down to the wire. In these situations, the less you notice of the referee, the better the game will be. We can only hope for a few more Owens’s and a few less Poites. But what do you think? Comments, as ever, below.
Next week’s blog looks towards the big international games coming our way over November and predicts who will be victorious.