There have been some exhibitionist refs over the years. Clive Norling was dubbed ‘Bubbles’ because of an afro that sprouted overnight. He also had a penchant for peculiarly short shorts. One England ref of previous vintage seemed to spend his resting life under a high power sun lamp and there was always something of a colour clash when he was put in charge of Fijian games.
Of the current generation Steve Walsh belongs to this exotic breed of peacock refs. His bonnet always seems to have been administered to in one of those unisex salons and you suspect him of having a full shelf of hair care products. Of course none of this matters if, like Norling, the man in question is a great referee.
But you start to wonder about the man inside the hair, when it is the ref who starts to take centre stage. At his best Walsh can be a very accomplished referee. But too often matches seem to become personal. In round five of the Super 15 Walsh awarded penalties 11-1 in the opening 60 minutes of the match between the Blues and Hurricanes. It was bizarre and it was unjustifiable.
Ask coaches up and down New Zealand about Walsh and off the record they will say that he has a bit of a case history of this sort of thing. Even coming up the ranks he was seen as partial on several occasions. It is a shame that he seems to take personal issue in matches, because it is a waste of a talent. But the man carries too much baggage.
Why oh why then is Walsh on the current list of elite referees. Indeed I would like some accountability about all the choices, because it smells bad. The four wise men on the IRB selection panel are Clayton Thomas, Lyndon Bray, Tappe Henning and Donal Courtney. Now guess what? Seven of the nine appointments to the elite reffing group (the exception are two Frenchmen) come from the home countries of the panel (please don’t tell me Walsh is an Aussie).
Eight of the nine big tests between the southern and northern hemisphere this summer will be reffed by men from these countries. And I thought refs were supposed to be impartial. It’s just not a good look.
Unbelievably Walsh has been put in charge of two of the tests between South Africa and England. Walsh was suspended at the 2003 Rugby World Cup for a run-in with England management. Indeed there is a bit of history with England and so it seems a peculiarly insensitive appointment to award him two tests involving England.
New Zealand refs keep getting appointed beyond their ability. Bryce Lawrence was an accident waiting to happen. Keith Brown has been put in charge of two Cheetahs games in recent weeks and cost the South African team points on both occasions. And why does the Super 15 still not have neutral refs? Now Chris Pollock is on the elite panel despite an erratic level of reffing over the previous 18 months. It looks like an old boys club.
From top to bottom the IRB reffing and laws administration is a current shambles. There are unqualified people in some top positions and the head of refs has just been moved aside before a replacement has been found. All around the world, clubs and players keep the highest of professional standards. Why cannot the IRB do the same with refs?