We all know that a week is a long time in politics.
Well, it seems it can be a very short time in rugby. Extraordinary events in Exeter, an epic encounter.
In the previous round, Rob Baxter’s team overcame a 0-14 deficit, to send Lyon packing. One week later, they’re left mystified, wondering how, having led by that same score, 14-0, they were themselves Lyon-ised by Leinster.
Hats off to Leinster, and particularly to Devin Toner, who left nothing behind in 70 minutes of total commitment to the cause, but that’s nothing new.
It was, though, distressing to watch Johnny Sexton fail yet another HIA. The same serious questions will be asked again, mostly by parents.
Mathieu Raynal had no interest in being the centre of attention – no smiling, false bonhomie. He addressed the captains correctly with, just, "captain", knowing familiarity breeds contempt, a cliche others should realise is true. He just got on with the job, communicating concisely, to the point.
His decisions were consistent and coherent. Inexplicably, Exeter's Jonny Hill wasn't "yellowed" for a strike on Ross Byrne. But, overall, Raynal can be very pleased with his work.
Andrew Brace, good last time out, will have much more to look at this week. Early on, there were some technical offences it seemed unnecessary to whistle. And having warned "Josh" (that'll be Beaumont, the Sale captain), several times, there was no card for repetitive offences. Second half, Sale were at it again, including a take-out in the air, which both alone, and cumulatively, had to be a yellow card, but wasn't. 'Familiarity', one wonders.
Brace's rugby-French has improved, well done. But his explanation, in excellent English, for not sanctioning a challenge by Sale's Cobus Wiese on Brice Dulin, was incomprehensible. Wiese's own reaction said a lot.
Two things are key to maximising performance in any sporting sphere, good coaching and no financial unease
Frank Murphy was in the wonderful setting of Bath, who were playing London Irish. There are some basic, fundamental issues which are leading him to inaccurate decisions. Mightn't have mattered on the night, but that's not the point. Bath's second try had more than a question mark, and several sanctions were just wrong.
Then a thought occurred, why are these guys not performing consistently, and better, maybe there’s something else? Bear with me.
South African Jason Jenkins is joining Munster, where fellow countryman Jean Kleyn already resides. An educated guess says that their combined earnings will cost way more than the IRFU is willing to shell out for the total price of all its full-time professional referees.
Two things are key to maximising performance in any sporting sphere, good coaching and no financial unease.
Dudley Phillips (department head) and John Lacey (elite referee coach and talent identification) were put in place some years ago. That alliance has had ample time to put down its mark, and to ensure that the camp, which they are responsible for, is a happy one. I have doubts, here's why:
Wayne Barnes is on a healthy salary (a tidy, and deserved sum, somewhere in six figures won't be far off the mark) and, very wisely, he pops down occasionally to chambers in Horace Rumpole territory, keeping his barristering skills in shape. He is rightly valued by the RFU.
Meanwhile, IRFU referees get match fees; plus a very basic pay, which is a fraction of Barnes’ take, and nobody can expect that in the early stages. But it is salesman and commission stuff, and worse, commission payable depends on others.
Then there's fitness and availability – tear a hamstring, get the flu, even become pregnant as is Joy Neville, and income stalls. That is shameful. A very raw deal that not one single player would accept. Where are the HR and legal departments in all of this stuff?
Not to mention the referee department which should have already sorted it out, on behalf of its officials in the field. How many will buy into such an arrangement, any takers so far?
As an aside, try explaining it all to a mortgage provider – no, don’t, no chance.
Rugby Players Ireland is an excellent association, which seems ideally placed to represent the referees, who have no one to advise, or to negotiate for them, individually or collectively. They are there to be picked off, low-balled, in pay discussions.
Donal Courtney, Alan Lewis and Alain Rolland were superb referees, but not a chance they'd have touched the current deal with a barge-pole. That tells a sorry tale.
So, IRFU, you should listen, not just hear. It's important not to confront, but to engage and solve
Next point. Judging referee performance, good, bad or indifferent, isn’t tricky. Elite coaching is recognising what’s going wrong, or what might go wrong; then the real, not-so-simple secret is understanding why, and knowing how to fix things. Not too many can.
Proper coaching listens, and adapts to the needs of each individual, needs which are rarely the same. It is not about authority, criticising or telling. Overloading with video clips, too, can lead to nasty outbreaks of referee-confused ‘clipitis’, game understanding must run deeper.
It’s really difficult to be convinced that the current IRFU referee coaching methodology is working, the performances are just too variable, inconsistent, sometimes well below par. Coaches get stick when teams play badly, referee counterparts should expect the same.
The emergence of new boy on the block, Ulster-developed Chris Busby, is positive. But it beggars all belief that talent searching has unearthed no equivalent in Leinster, the most populated province by miles.
So, IRFU, you should listen, not just hear. It’s important not to confront, but to engage and solve, and there is a not too costly solution out there; then have an independent review to assess everything, and act on it. Encourage the representation which, in any case, should be the referees’ right.
In other words, value them, that used to be the case.