In Depth

Why is Steve Walsh refereeing crucial England v Wales game?

Australian referee has 'previous' with England and has been described as a 'walking timebomb'

THE STAGE is set, the roof is ready, so let’s hope we get some rugby when England and Wales clash in Cardiff on Saturday night. God knows, this Six Nations needs it after what has been arguably the most tedious tournament in living memory.

After the early promise of the opening weekend, when Ireland ran Wales ragged, England powered past Scotland and Italy stunned France, the rugby has been as grim as the weather, culminating in last Saturday’s desperate encounter between Scotland and Wales. That was, by common consent, the worst game in the 13-year history of the Six Nations, ruined by a whistle-happy official who awarded 28 penalties during the 80 minutes.

The referee in question, Craig Joubert, is from the southern hemisphere, as is Steve Walsh, the man charged with officiating in Cardiff tomorrow night. Put bluntly, there is a feeling among many in Europe that southern hemisphere referees just aren’t up to the job, particularly when it comes to overseeing the scrum. Walsh, an Australian, was in charge of last week’s Ireland against France match and he came in for much criticism on the back of another questionable display with the whistle.

For England the prospect of being refereed by Walsh as they attempt to win their first Grand Slam in ten years is not a happy one because the two have ‘previous’. During the 2003 World Cup in Australia Walsh was given a three-day suspension for what the International Rugby Board termed "inappropriate behaviour" during England’s pool win over Samoa, behaviour which allegedly involved squirting water from a rehydration bottle over one of the England coaches after an argument about substitutions.

Walsh was eventually sacked by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 2009 after arriving drunk at a refereeing conference in Sydney, an episoide he later admitted. He then moved to Australia, sobered up, and returned as a referee in 2010 having changed his nationality from Kiwi to Aussie, but still bristling with self-importance.

He was in charge of last year's Six Nations encounter between England and Wales, a match the Welsh deserved to win although English fans were convinced their cause wasn't helped by several questionable decisions by Walsh. It’s not just the English who have had problems with Walsh. Described by a fellow official in 2009 as a "walking timebomb", Walsh was once suspended for four months for verbally abusing Ireland’s Shane Horgan during a British and Irish Lions tour match in New Zealand in 2005. As recently as March this year, he had what one paper called a "physical altercation" with All Blacks centre Conrad Smith during a match between the Hurricanes and the Queensland Reds.

It was crass of the IRB to appoint Walsh as referee for this fixture. They know his reputation and they should have avoided the risk of any potential controversy by giving the game to another referee. Instead the most eagerly-anticipated match in Six Nations rugby for years is in danger of being overshadowed by a man who often gives the impression of believing spectators have paid to watch him, not the 30 players he should be officiating.

As for the rugby, England coach Stuart Lancaster has recalled the half-back pair of Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs, while also bringing back Joe Marler at loosehead prop. The scrum is an area where England believe they have an advantage, a belief strengthened with the withdrawal of Wales captain and flanker Ryan Jones through injury.

The Welsh, however, have a far superior backline to their visitors and their two giant wingers – the 6ft 4in George North and 6ft 6in Alex Cuthbert – will look to make yards out wide.

It will be a fascinating clash of styles as England chase that elusive Grand Slam and Wales know that victory by seven points or more will win them the championship title.

The roof of the Millennium Stadium will be closed so there'll be no chance of the weather ruining the occasion. Let's hope the referee doesn’t.

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