With all due respect - don't you love that expression? It means, invariably, that the person being addressed has (in the opinion of the speaker) the IQ of a jockstrap and may be described with a word pertaining to one of the occupants of said jockstrap.

It's like the question: "Do you mind if I say something?" You know - with stone cold certainty - that you are about to be the target of criticism. The correct response is: "Can I tell you when I get to Vladivostok?", accompanied by rapid departure.

So, with all due respect, Nigel Owens, do you mind if I say something? You were a disgrace in the All Blacks v England test last week.

Not because he had a bad day but because he abandoned the principle of the referee being the man in charge. He became a consensus referee, swayed by how loud the crowd brayed, persuaded by a faceless TV producer replaying items open to debate to ignite the crowd. He was a straw in the rugby wind, offering all the steel of a custard tart.


He was so badly discombobulated that he somehow gave All Blacks hooker Dane Coles a yellow card for lashing out with his boot after being fouled - admittedly a dumb thing to do. The whole world could tell it wasn't a yellow card. Penalty England, yes. All rugby players and certainly all test players know refs penalise retaliation as opposed to the original offence.

That he ignored the advice of the TMO was explained by some as difficulty hearing the TMO. Maybe, but that doesn't change the judgement call. That yellow card was really held aloft by all the English fans among the 80,000 spectators. So was the penalty try against the All Blacks at the end. There was no certainty a try would have been scored but it was all about appeasing Twickenham at that stage after previous gaffes.

But that's history now. Like his status as the world's top referee.

Some apologists have maintained Owens didn't deserve the pasting he got, that he was correct in his actions. We can argue that until the cows come home as sausages - but the major point remains: Owens seemed motivated by what the crowd thought; most anxious to interpret the will of the spectators, not what he saw or was advised by his TMO and assistant referees.

We now know that refs can, before a conversion is taken to a try that has been awarded, decide to look at the replay to check the validity of the score. So while the letter of the law was observed, his haste to do so in front of a baying crowd gave him away. His game was one of the worst examples of bowing to home-crowd pressure since the days when the All Blacks had to compete not only against the Springboks but South African referees as well.

What the apologists and the establishment overlook is lambasting of referees would be significantly reduced if they simply allowed players and coaches to comment.

Rugby's hopeless protection of the adjudicators is an old-fogey throwback to the amateur days in a relentlessly professional sport. Coaches cop it, so do players but referees are insulated.

With the likes of Steve Hansen and Richie McCaw unable to say what they really think because of censure and fines, the door is left invitingly open for poisoned arrows from fans and media.


How daft is that? Everyone else can comment but those at the helm of the planet's most influential teams can't. It's a situation of contrived artificiality provoking inflated tirades.

To those who say referees need protection otherwise we won't have good ones, let me break it gently: The system isn't working. Keith Lawrence was driven out of the game by public displeasure; Romain Poite seems a flakey, inconsistent whistler; Wayne Barnes, well, you know ...

This column has said repeatedly the problem is not so much the refs as the bewildering depth and complexity of the rules. But sport revolves around controversy and debate. When refs stuff up, they should be able to be criticised by their on-field charges.

People like Hansen and McCaw are statesmen enough to criticise without abandoning sportsmanship and indulging in self-serving tactical comments.

Rugby fans are not stupid - they know when a coach or player is piling it on for reasons of gain.

Barnes has said referees are accountable, stood down from internationals, international panels and first-class rugby - but that's all unseen, largely unpublicised stuff usually a long way after the fact.

Fair enough, referees need to be rehabilitated and persevered with and there is no doubt some of the worst criticism (Owens was reportedly subject to homophobic abuse) would likely not be muted. There is no power on Earth to legislate against morons.

But maybe allowing refs to be subjected to player and coach criticism might help build character; the sort of character required to stand up to a home crowd instead of being softly cradled in a closed room somewhere deep inside the IRB's conservative empire.