Sunday, 11 March 2007

Six nations - fire the ref

Every year, the Six Nations rubgy tournament heralds an end to the gloom of winter with the promise of exciting international matches most weekends. After growing up in a household where the men and boys were obsessed by sport, I am almost allergic to it - but rugby is the exception - despite its brutality, there is nothing as gripping as a good rugby match.

This year, Ireland started out as favourites, but the pesky French stole our thunder when they beat us in the first ever "foreign game" to be played in Croke Park. In the last seconds of the match, they raced up the pitch and scored - damn them. The referee failed to notice that the start of this play was illegal and it should not have been allowed. The whole world saw it on TV, but that doesn't make a toss of difference it seems.

Yesterday, Ireland played Scotland in Edinburgh, and Wales played Italy in Rome. Despite being firm favourites, Ireland had a tough time of it, and only barely managed to hold on to win 19-18. After the game, Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach that looks like an accountant, made a statement that a Scottish player had tried to choke Ronan O'Gara and that O'Gara lost consciousness briefly. I assume there will be an investigation and the offending player will be banned.

But that incident pales into insignificance when you consider what happened at the next match of the afternoon. Over in Rome an English referee, Chris White, seemed blind to some rather nasty behaviour by members of the Italian team. We know rugby is a brutal game and none of the players are saints - they will break rules when they think they will get away with it. But in the 28th minute of the match I watched Mauro Bergamasco clinically clench his fist and punch Stephen Jones in the face. But the ref didn't notice or didn't care and while Jones left the pitch with blood streaming from a cut above his eye, the game continued - not even a penalty awarded. This was one of several infringements that the ref did not notice and, in my opinion, had a definite impact on the game and the final scoreline.

Jones returned to the pitch in the second half and he looked angry - who would blame him. It must have galled him terribly when in the closing minutes the same Bergamasco (there are two on the Italian team) scored a great try which put Italy in the lead - the man shouldn't even have been on the pitch. And to top it all, the ref finished the game by lying to the welsh players that they had time for a final line out and then blew the whistle before they could take it.

I've been looking to see what other people feel about this - and I'm surprised at how little there is online about the Six Nations. There are some nice quirky blogs but nothing substantial outside of the BBC site, where Nick Mullins, a sports commentator, is having problems keeping up with the spate of comments - 140 now and still counting. Opinions are mixed - Italian fans don't seem that bothered that the awful refereeing detracts from their victory. Welsh fans are, understandably, pretty miffed and there are some pretty strong feelings out there.

Rugby is gaining in popularity and the quality of the game is improving. But how long will it continue to do so if this sort of behaviour continues unchecked. This weekend we witnessed blatant assault (choking and punching) and the referee lied to a team in a manner that ensured they lost the game.

I'm not normally one to subscribe to ref-bashing and conspiracy theories about game fixing. Around our dinner table, I heard enough ref discussion to last me several lifetimes, but what I saw yesterday was disgraceful. Either the ref and his squad of helpers are completely incompetent or they were made an offer they couldn't refuse. Whichever proves to be the case - if we ever find out - they should all be fired and publicly humiliated. Bergamasco should never be allowed on a rugby pitch again and Italy should forfeit the match.

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