A sense of Déjà vu drifted over many Welsh supporters (well the ones with long memories), during the last Rugby Union World Cup in New Zealand. It was the semi-final in October 2011, when their saintly Captain Sam Warburton was show the red card by Alain Rolland (1966- ) the Irish referee, in their match against France. With a man down, Wales lost, and many felt it a horrendous and largely unjust decision. Though Rolland was later supported by the International Rugby Board for adhering to the law book and Warburton accepted his red card with good grace, Rolland did not referee any Wales games during the Six Nations Championship.
A similar event occurred in March 1974 at Twickenham when another Irish referee John West (1939- ) failed to award what was thought by the whole of Wales, a certain try by JJ Williams 10 minutes from no-side. England won 16-12, giving them their first win over Wales at Twickenham for over 10 years. The press enjoyed a field day –‘Twickenham, Welsh hopes go West’ etc.
It inspired the popular Welsh folksinger, Max Boyce to write his now famous ‘Blind Irish Referees’ poem as a lament, (listen to the poem -see link below) which begins: “I am an entertainer, and I sing for charity”…
…the poem ends with the words…
‘The Sunshine Home in Dublin For blind Irish Referees’!
Despite this John West went on to have a long career as an international referee, and later became a citing commissioner. He doesn’t appear to have taken up residence in the Sunshine Home in Dublin, but a ‘white stick’ sent to him shortly after the event of 1974 was to become one of his most prized possessions. (There was no mention of a dog).
Would you believe, there was an even earlier candidate for the ‘Blind Irish Referee’ epithet (yes really) in the form of Paddy d’Arcy (ironically he’d been mentored by a Welshman). He officiated in the 1967 England v France game at Twickenham – a wonderfully entertaining display of open rugby. The visitors won 16-12, after he disallowed what was generally agreed to be a legitimate try by England’s skipper Phil Judd, ruling he had played the ball on the ground as he stretched for the line. England was seething, but it was only their ‘stiff upper lip’ that prevented a fuss.
Despite all, he [the referee] is flesh and blood
Of course, anyone who watches rugby regularly will learn quite soon that the most important person in the match proceedings is the referee. Despite all, he is flesh and blood and can have a good or bad match. He may be either whistle-happy, or prepared to let the game flow. He has his likes and dislikes, some things which he is prepared to allow and others on which he comes down like a ton of bricks. A few referees become ‘personalities’, their views sought after, and their characters the subject of learned analysis in clubhouses up and down the land.
One such highly respected referee was the immaculate yet diminutive Welshman David Gwynne Walters (1928-1988) who made his international debut in 1959. He was frequently asked to officiate at Varsity games, (a match that actually didn’t have referees until 1881). One of the unique aspects of the Varsity game (up until the start of the professional era), was that the referee was not appointed by the RFU but agreed upon and invited by the two captains. It was the high regard they held him that he was invited to officiate a record number of appearances.
A story about Walter’s occurs in 1968 when Rugby School was due to play Campbell College, Belfast. The pitch had been affected by a sharp frost and there was some concern. The situation was alleviated by the arrival of referee Gwynne Walters, who dug his heel in and pronounced it perfectly playable, but was then heard to mutter: “they’re young enough to bounce.”
Mentored by a Welshman
Around the same time, a young Irish referee (the same Paddy d’Arcy) was allocated his first international England v Wales at Twickenham (1968) – he turned to Gwynne for advice on how to handle the game.
It seems Gwynne told him to keep it tight for the first 10 minutes or so to show that he was in charge, and to issue a penalty in the first scrum – even if he saw nothing wrong! Based on the assumption that there is so much going on the players would not argue. The game started and remembering his advice penalised Wales in the first scrum even though he hadn’t seen any infringement. The scrum broke up and as the Welsh forwards were running back d’Arcy was reassured overhearing a Welsh forward tell his hooker “Don’t try that again Norm – he’s on to it!”
The match was eventually drawn 11-11.
Images: The ‘Blind Irish Referee’, tongue-in-cheek picture was circulated on Twitter by @jimboloony, and featured on http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/rugby-world-cup-how-wales-1805632
Gwynne Walters in 1959, http://irishphotoarchive.photoshelter.com/image/I0000Sl7loTw6.xE