A Reffing Disaster Posted almost 11 years ago

Rugby union has been asking for trouble and it finally got it. A splendid premiership final was ruined as a contest by Dylan Hartley’s sending off. Of course the player is individually responsible for being an idiot, but the game’s governing body is collectively responsible for systematically undermining the authority of refs.

It all started to go wrong when refs started to have ongoing conversations with players, advising them on their rights and wrongs and when the next bus was due to arrive. Some refs used to have a drink in the bar with the players afterwards and that was all well and very good for mutual understanding. But trying to cosy up to them on the pitch – see Steve ‘Mate’ Walsh – leads players to think they can take advantage.

The IRB then brought in the TMO and gave him more and more power. This encouraged players to further appeal to the ref in order to have decisions reversed.

The open communication stream with the touchline has also been a Pandora’s Box. Coaches see the opportunity to get in the ear of a sideline official in the hope of influencing the man in the middle.

Richard Cockerill’s behaviour during the final was a disgrace. The Leicester coach came down from the stand to complain, wrongly, that Courtney Lawes had not received a yellow card for a late tackle. What sort of example was that?

Cockerill should have been more concerned with the welfare of his own player, Toby Flood, who was clearly concussed. The fact that Flood was allowed to play on, despite receiving very lengthy treatment for a head impact, was a scandal. Cockerill should be held accountable.

There was then further proof that the TMO system is a disaster. Whether Ben Foden touched the ball down before his foot went over the touch in goal is debatable. The high tackle that impeded his progress to the line was not debatable. If the grounding was unclear, a penalty try should have been awarded.

But if Barnes had then got on with reffing the scrum instead of chatting to all his new friends, the subsequent dissent would not have happened. When Leicester were wheeling through 90 Barnes tipped them off and then let them play on despite the fact they still infringed. It led to a try.

Hartley was later angered, as was the rest of the Northampton front row, when Barnes ordered a reset instead of penalising Dan Cole, as the law obliged him to do, for putting a hand to ground.

He then gave two successive penalties against Northampton, at which point Hartley lost it. The hooker’s behaviour was inexcusable, but if Barnes shut up instead of talking to grown men as if they were 8-year-olds, law and order might be maintained. If refs endlessly talk to players, it should not be a surprise when they say something back.

Sadly law and order is not likely to be maintained when the Northampton owner is seen commiserating with his captain instead of reprimanding him. Will the club fine Hartley? Nor is law and order likely to be maintained when the Lions manager responds to Hartley’s ban by saying, “A final decision on whether Dylan Hartley takes any part in the tour will depend on the outcome of a potential appeal.”

What a terrible example to set the game. Barnes has said that he had no doubt that the words “effing cheat” were directed at him. The disciplinary panel accepted the ref’s word. But the Lions manager does not. Come on Andy, get a grip. Hartley is a serial offender and you are undermining discipline before the tour has even started.

It is all a sorry, sorry tale. But I really fear for the poor bloke, unpaid, who picks up the whistle at the local club on Saturday. What chance has he got?

Has the IRB brought this storm on, or did Dylan Hartley get what was coming to him? Comments below…

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Mark Reason has been a sports journalist for over 25 years. He currently works for Fairfax Media and will also be part of the Telegraph's World Cup team and a regular panellist on Radio New Zealand during the World Cup. He has covered every Rugby World Cup since 1991, the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, over 40 golf major championships, the FA Cup final, the Epsom Derby and a lot of other stuff he can't remember. Mark emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 having spent over 20 years covering sport for the Telegraph and Sunday Times in Britain.

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