Clive Woodward launched his first media campaign of the tour just a day before the Lions face their biggest challenge yet by calling for touch-judges to stop interfering in the referee’s business.
The Lions head coach believes the touch judges in the opening games have been too involved in the action and he does not want to see them neglecting their own duties in tomorrow’s heavyweight showdown with the New Zealand Maori.
The issue was first raised after the Lions’ victory over Taranaki on Wednesday, when touch-judges Steve Walsh and Paul Honiss could be heard advising referee Kelvin Deaker throughout the game.
Woodward, who is a past master at choosing specific times to flag up controversial issues, returned to it unprompted today and forcefully outlined his opposition to those running the line acting like referees.
“The only thing that has surprised us is the amount of talking from the two touch judges,” he said.
“The referee is allowed to seek advice from the two touch judges but there is a lot of advice coming in at the moment. It is hard enough dealing with one referee never mind three. If we are going to go to three referees we need to make it a rule and divide up the pitch.
“To me, the touch judge is there to put his flag up when the ball goes out and to make sure there is no foul play going on behind the ball. That is his number one role. He should allow the referee to watch the ball and make his own decisions.
“If the referee misses a forward pass, that is part of the game. But I want to make sure if there is an incident off the ball we get the right man, on both sides. I think it needs sorting out.”
Honiss, Walsh, Deaker and Lyndon Bray, all top line referees, are sharing the duties between them for the Lions’ eight tour matches after Woodward insisted on using only ’A-grade’ officials.
But while Woodward stressed he has no issues with the performances of the men in the middle – Honiss against Bay of Plenty and Deaker on Wednesday – he wants the touch judges to remember their own responsibilities.
“We wanted the very best officials but all that happens is you end up having three referees. I think we need one referee to run the game,” he said.
“My experience says that sometimes the best referees do not often make the best touch judges. Touch judging is an art.”
Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll agreed with his head coach and will be looking to communicate solely with the referee – in this case, Walsh – during the Maori game tomorrow.
“It is a lot easier going through one source rather than through three. You can develop a relationship in the game with the referee, try to build his confidence and that can be difficult when there are so many interruptions from the touch judges,” said O’Driscoll.
Quite what Woodward’s motive is for the outburst remains to be seen. Perhaps he is concerned that two further sets of eyes might spot more shenanigans at the breakdown. Perhaps he is concerned by the number of off-the-ball scraps that occurred against Taranaki on Wednesday.
Certainly, he has long been irked by the issue of officials over-stepping the mark in this part of the world.
Against Taranaki, Honiss wrongly identified Donnacha O’Callaghan when calling Deaker’s attention to a scuffle that had actually involved Danny Grewcock.
Last year, Simon Shaw was sent off in England’s Test defeat to New Zealand on the advice of Australian tough judge Stuart Dickinson.
Woodward described the decision as “ridiculous” and Shaw, who had been dismissed for kneeing Keith Robinson, escaped a ban because referee Nigel Williams had contravened the regulations by calling on the television official to identify the alleged culprit.
At the 2003 World Cup, Walsh was banned for one match after clashing with England coach Dave Reddin over the so-called ’16th-man’ fiasco and he missed the France-USA pool match.
Walsh, a vocal presence on the touchline on Wednesday, takes charge of tomorrow’s heavyweight clash with the New Zealand Maori, where interpretations at the scrum and breakdown will be crucial.
“I know Steve Walsh well and I look forward to working with him in tomorrow’s game,” said Woodward.
“I will raise the issue with him. I just want to see the referee rule the game.”
The Lions’ are in for a bruising showdown against the best Maori side assembled in over a decade. Coach Matt Te Pou has had first call on the Maori All Blacks and has named 11 capped players in the starting XV.
That includes a giant front row that will challenge the Lions’ own jumbo trio of Andrew Sheridan, Steve Thompson and Julian White – a combination with the combined weight of 54 stone, 10 pounds
Sheridan is yet to start a Test for England but Woodward believes he can make a major impact on this tour.
“It’s his first start here. He made a big impact when he came on the other night against Bay of Plenty,” said Woodward.
“It is a big, big step up for him but also a huge opportunity. The more you can put your team up against world-class players the better it is for us because we need to find out about players.
“It is the strongest Maori team for a long long time because they have all their Test players playing for them, which from my point of view is fantastic.”