It was in retrospect the archetypal Sam Warburton moment – humorously self-deprecating, but at the same time smart and thoughtful, expressing the personality of the Lions captain.
It came at the end of the press conferences which accompanied the naming of the Lions squad. Everyone was winding down, with writers from daily papers eyeing their sixth interviewee in a couple of hours and Sam, poor devil, confronted by his sixth group of journalists.
One of the more thoughtful of our number had the happy idea of breaking away from the usual run of questions to ask about his dealings with referees. Warren Gatland is after all on record as saying that his ability to deal with refs is one of his great strengths.
How does he do it ? “My parents taught me manners”, he explained – evidently true, and with the added value of getting a gentle laugh from his somewhat jaded audience. But then came the more thoughtful part.
First he explained why he wouldn’t go charging up to the referee to debate every marginal call: “If I’m in there 12 or times a game, we’ll both get frustrated and it won’t do any good. It makes much more sense if you keep yourself to a handful of times – he’s likelier to listen.”
And there was also the matter of timing. “You pick your moments. The time to ask isn’t when the referee has just made a big decision – you’ll still be emotional and any doubts will still be in his mind. It is better to wait your moment, perhaps to the next break in play when everybody has cooled down a little.”
Referee and captain is, as Gatland’s explanation for his choice of Warburton shows, one of the crucial relationships in the game. Get on the wrong side of the man with the whistle and, in a sport typified by complexity and tight judgment calls, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. Keep him happy, conversely, and you may have a vital marginal edge.
It is a relationship going back to the earliest days of the game, when they were effectively one and the same. Important matches had umpires, but they as yet lacked the powers of referees. The two captains were expected to sort out matters of indiscipline and illegal play between themselves, in the manner of true British gentlemen. The trouble was that it did not work out that way.
Teams were wont to elect their most effectively disputatious members as captains and a number of disputes involving such unquestionably gentlemanly teams as Richmond, Oxford University and Edinburgh Academicals led to matches being abandoned.
Warren Gatland, left, has praised Sam Warburton’s handling of referees. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Referees were introduced in 1885, given the power to send off serious offenders in 1889 and formally declared ‘sole judges of fact’ in 1892. Rugby’s custom and practice similarly enshrined the captain as the one player allowed to question the referee.
Reflink nowadays gives us a flavour of the conversations. We know now that it is an unwise player who enters into repartee with individuals such as Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes who as well as having the power of the laws on their side, possess the quick wits associated with off-field identities – Barnes the barrister and Owens the bilingual stand-up comic.
Too bad it did not come earlier. It would have been intriguing to know the content of what appeared to be game-long seminars on interpretation conducted by Lawrence Dallaglio with anyone refereeing either Wasps or England, or whether Sean Fitzpatrick really did referee All Black matches. And was Martin Johnson perpetually suspended halfway between exasperation and outright anger, or does he just have that sort of face ?
Johnson was of course the nearest thing rugby has seen to a reincarnation of legendary All Black Colin Meads, and may have learnt something of the art of handling referees during a year playing as a youngster in Meads’ King Country bailiwick.
Meads was a renowned talker to referees. His biographer Alex Veysey recorded that ‘Referees have been known in their after-dinner speeches to thank him for his friendly advice and comments during the game!’ Meads himself admitted that in the latter part of his career he was ‘strongly inclined to ensure that the referee picked up every opposition knock-on, forward-pass or offside by making instant judgments himself and advising the referee of his findings. This, he concedes, has not deeply endeared him to some referees.’
He pointed out to Veysey that technical offences could decide a game, protesting: “If you are winning good lineout ball but know the opposition backs are screaming up to beat the ten-yard gap and are not being penalised for it then you’d be a fool not to say something about it. These are the things I do and I’m accused of trying to referee the game.”
One problem was that Meads had such standing in New Zealand rugby that opponents were wont to believe that referees were taking too much direction from him. And this issue is not confined to New Zealand.
Sam Warburton will captain the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand. Matt Roberts/Getty Images
Derek Bevan, Nigel Owens’ predecessor as a Welsh World Cup final referee, has told against himself the story of one of his first senior matches. A back-row forward well known to the disciplinary authorities before injury compelled a switch to refereeing, he was delighted to be put in charge of Pontypool v Bristol, both teams captained by fine back row forwards, Mike Rafter for Bristol and Wales veteran Terry Cobner for Pooler.
He enjoyed the game, felt it had gone well and at the end was amused when Rafter said “Thank you for the game, Mr Bevan and please thank the other referee, Mr Cobner, from me.” Telling Rafter ‘That’s fine, I can take a joke’, he was a little taken aback to be told that he wasn’t joking at all.
Player and referee sat down over a post-match drink and Rafter took him through the afternoon, showing the points at which the artful Cobner’s apparently friendly and helpful interventions had influenced his decision-making. Bevan had to recognise the truth in what he was saying, and learnt an early object lesson which may have helped his ascension to being among the world’s best.
Good, experienced referees get wise to the games played by captains, the more obvious blusterers as much as subtle Sam. Learning how to handle them is one of the skills which separates the best from the rest. But one suspects that many still hold to the philosophy expressed by HH Almond, headmaster of Fettes College and umpire of the first ever rugby international, to explain his award in the match of the decisive, disputed Scottish try: “When an umpire is in doubt, I think he is justified in deciding against the side which makes most noise. They are probably in the wrong.”
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Quiet man Warburton can manage refs
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