When the All Blacks and the Wallabies take the field at Eden Park tonight, both teams will be keen to bury the memory of Sydney last Saturday. So should the referee. Ireland's Alain Rolland, who had the whistle last week, will swap roles tonight with Wales' Nigel Owens, who was a touch official at Sydney. Mr Owens needs to let this game flow.

Mr Rolland, normally one of the better referees from European rugby, had many in despair at his rulings last weekend.

He cannot be blamed for the lapses and errors of the players in that game but some of his decisions did not help. They caused many besides the television commentators to wonder why we have referees from the Northern Hemisphere controlling matches in the southern competition.

The northern unions have a different rugby culture. Their crowds expect the game to be fairly strictly refereed and do not seem to mind the contest of scrums and penalty kicks that usually results. Southern rugby is different.


It is played at a faster clip and needs more artful control. The best South African, Australian and New Zealand referees have developed the art in the Super 15; why introduce northerners for the southern internationals?

One reason is said to be a need for southern players to be familiar with northern rulings before they make their November tours to Europe. But that makes no sense.

The southern internationals, "The Rugby Championship" as they have been named with the addition of Argentina this year, are far more important to fans in this country than the November tours.

And it is the fans that count. Their entertainment matters far more than the integration of the game globally, or the opportunities for referees to travel, or whatever the real reason may be for flying referees across the equator.

Doubtless crowds in the Northern Hemisphere find southern officials too liberal for their liking.

Within the larger populations of Europe, rugby seems able to survive on the stolid fare that it usually serves to crowds at its Six Nations games. But that brand of rugby would not compete in Australia with league and Australian rules, and struggle to maintain interest here too.

The game in this part of the world can ill afford the stuttering, bumbling display it gave Australians last Saturday.

Referees must wonder sometimes what we really want. It is only a few weeks since England's Wayne Barnes was being lashed in Graham Henry's book for awarding too few penalties in the All Blacks' 2007 World Cup loss. South Africa and Australia muttered a similar complaint at their exits from last year's World Cup.

At least New Zealand criticism of Mr Rolland's performance last week cannot be mistaken for sour grapes. The All Blacks won the game comfortably, though they did not win well.

Rugby must be one of the hardest sports to referee.

It has far too many rules, many of them beyond the comprehension of those playing the game, let alone those watching it. Scrum collapses are a lottery, every tackled ball presents a welter of possible penalties. A good referee has to know what to ignore.

He needs to remember always, he is essential to the creation of a spectacle but he is not part of it. The better his art the less he will be noticed.