It has not been widely reported that there was a protracted debate between the Lions and the ARU over the appointment of an Australian referee for last week’s game against the Combined NSW/ Queensland country. While agreement had originally been reached for neutral referees to oversee each game of the tour, the Lions relented and agreed for a local ref to be appointed for “development purposes”.
When it transpired that Steve Walsh was that referee, it became clear that the Aussies were up to their old tricks. Walsh has history with teams from the home nations. He was suspended for four months during the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005 for verbally abusing Lions winger Shane Horgan over a disputed decision. Similarly, he received a suspension for inappropriate behaviour towards the England team during RWC 2003.
Walsh, who debuted at test level in 1998 and has 38 tests to his name, is hardly the referee who would most gain from the experience of such an appointment. There are 15 referees on the ARU National Referees Panel with New Zealander Walsh the only one to have officiated at test level. Angus Gardner, Andrew Lees or James Leckie would have benefitted from the experience of a game involving the Lions as they seek appointment to the IRB’s Elite Referee Panel, where Walsh is currently the only “Australian” representative.
The situation became more sinister on Monday when it was reported in the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane that “Walsh was an on-field presence at the Wallabies training camp last week and was used to help work out ways to penetrate the expected obstruction ploys of the Lions. He would also have given the Wallabies an insight into the scrum-calling habits of fellow Kiwi Chris Pollock, the first test referee”.
There may be no rule against the involvement of an international referee with Test match preparation, but in the circumstances the move can only be viewed as further provocative behaviour by the ARU. While no stone should be left unturned in an effort to secure a series victory, the use of a supposedly neutral referee in this manner is over-stepping the mark.
Were Wayne Barnes to referee a game between the Wallabies and Leicester on a future November tour and then go into camp with the England team ahead of a Twickenham test match between the two sides, the outrage from the Wallabies would be as predictable as it would be appropriate.
It would appear that the Lions have chosen not to make an issue out of either incident involving Walsh and probably rightly so, too. They need neither the distraction nor to involve themselves in a pre-test exchange with the Wallabies. The IRB, however, should investigate and ensure that such blatantly unethical behaviour should be prevented from happening again.