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Sunday 1st February 2004

From Kevin Marsh

I know you know this but it's worth reminding you, just in case, that these newsletters are written a few days before you get them and as I sit here writing this one I'm waiting to learn the outcome of one of the most important events of the week.

If my rugby club, Wasps, can beat Perpignan in Perpignan on Sunday then we will qualify for the quarter finals of the European cup and possibly even a home tie - vital if we're going to maximise our chances of winning the competition.

Winning in France is very difficult for all sorts of reasons but one is that referees matter there more than anywhere else in the world. They are eccentric and sometimes worse - not because they're French, you understand; in this competition, they come from a neutral country and are supposed to be neutral in their approach to the game … as indeed they're supposed to be in all games though it doesn't always turn out like that.

It would be wrong to allege that, in France, intimidation comes into it though there is the story of the referee who made a number of eccentric decisions in a close fought game in the sud ouest and as a result the home side lost. He came out of the clubhouse to find his car wrecked and burning at the bottom of the 300 metre ravine that formed one side of the ground. He was cross and started to call the police - but was told he shouldn't bother: the local policeman - who was the brother of the home side's front row - had put it there himself.

There is a rugby code that you do not argue with the referee. It is not like football where abusing the officials and whining about their decisions is apparently part of the fun.

It is not like this with rugby. Whether you're playing or watching you take it - however unfairly you think you or your side has been pinged - and get on with it.

It's partly because there's a lot of sympathy with rugby referees because everyone playing and watching knows that at least 70% of the game is played at close quarters and is therefore invisible to any referee however good and impartial. The laws are complex and cannot all be applied all the time and no-one expects them to be but then again the expectation is that all 30 men - or women - on the pitch are in some sense trying to abide by them though every once in a while you do get one who isn't.

It's also true that if you think all the referee's decisions have gone against you one week, they'll probably go for you the next and so even themselves out over time. All referees can decide the outcome of every game but it's a given in rugby that so long as he doesn't unbalance a game by giving all the benefits of the doubt on every call to the one side, then he'll have done a decent job. And by and large, a side - and its supporters - that feels it should have lost but for the referee will concede that.

Having the character to control yourself and your aggression - your whole demeanour indeed - is what rugby is all about and that's why after England's WC victory the game appealed to so many parent converts. Character is important in contact sports and in maintaining your skills under pressure but it's even more important in how you deal with what you feel are the unfair offsides and handling in the rucks. Accepting them is only the start of it, though. Because you want a good game you, or your captain, will politely ask the referee "Could you tell me what that was for, sir ?" not to question his judgement but to know the way he wants to referee the game.

The sir is vital, by the way - it's what we call the officials in rugby. Sides lose ten yards for failing to show them respect and quite right too.

But there's more. Accepting the referee's decision does not mean you cringe and stop playing or go more softly into contact or stop testing the offside line or the binding in the scrum and you certainly don't let-up the physical and psychological pressure on the other side. Good sides learn to play the referees and if it's clear he's more interested - say - in the dark theatricals of the front row or line out you adjust your game. What you do not do is take a step back. You keep your discipline and play harder and cleverer - you're not on the pitch to engage in deep introspection you're there to win the game.

Similarly, if you're on a good run with the referee you don't gloat. Smug, arrogant sides get beaten. Always. I've lost count of the number of times a side will have a run of penalties in their favour giving them a lead against the run of play. They'll rack up 12 quick points, think it's all over and find themselves hammered in the last 20 minutes. The referee might from time to time hand you the game - but that's not the way to bet.

The biggest challenge to any side, of course, is losing your captain. The greatest living Englishman - Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio - is the Wasps captain and now the England captain. This is good. He is charismatic, has a strong vision for his team and leads by presence and inspiration. But he is a back row forward and by definition spends much of his time on the ground winning or keeping the ball whether in attack or in last gasp defence and this is an area of the game that referees find particularly difficult to read. There is a lot of kidology and most referees' decisions in this area are made in spite of the evidence rather than because of it though - see above - you expect them to balance out over time.

Unsurprisingly therefore back row forwards - including the greatest living Englishman - get a lot of yellow cards and spend a lot of time off the pitch for ten minutes thinking about things. This is a dangerous time when it is also your captain and especially if everyone on the pitch and watching can tell the referee is having a bit of a mare and the game might actually be better disciplined if he gave himself a yellow card.

This is when sides have to pick themselves up - line-up behind a new man (preferably one of the piano shifters up front) dig in, get it right and keep their nerve. Again, what you do not do is take a step back. Sides often concede 7 or 10 points when they're down to 14 men: just as often they score 10 or 15 points as soon as they're back up to 15.

So let's see how Sunday turns out and hope that it doesn’t all come down to the referee; Wasps are a strong and proud side with a fine tradition (they would have been a founder member of the RFU had they gone to the right pub) and their skill, discipline, teamwork and self-esteem will see them through … if not in this Europe campaign then in the next.

We're not going away.


LATE NEWS: It all turned out for the best in the end. We had an Irish referee who binned two of our best players - Simon Shaw and Martin Purdey - but we still won 34-6.

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