It’s been a terrific two weeks for Limerick referee George Clancy: first he makes the elite panel of 10 for the World Cup in September; then he is handed his first Heineken Cup semi-final – Northampton Saints against Perpignan on I May. As Clancy makes his way in the refereeing world he passes Alan Lewis heading in the other direction. Lewis will call it a day at the end of the season – at least six months sooner than planned.
Coincidentally Clancy will get to referee New Zealand in the RWC opener, against Tonga. The coincidence being that it was criticism from the Kiwis which put the kibosh on Lewis’s case for being included on the panel of 10.
Or perhaps that’s another coincidence. Rewind to the autumn international series in 2005 when he yellow carded no less than three All Blacks: Tony Woodcock, Chris Masoe and Neemia Tialata. And none from England.
In Auckland last summer after a Tri Nations game the Kiwi management raised questions about his fitness as if he had been a mile off the pace. He wasn’t.
Then last November in Cardiff he handled their game against Wales and they lost out on the penalty count. They were fuming over one scrum in particular, late in the day, when Lewis pinged the All Blacks for dropping it while hooker Keven Mealamu was blaming the churned up turf at the Millennium Stadium.
“I thought we struggled with the ref,” Graham Henry said afterwards. “We did not get the bounce of the ball with him which makes it difficult.”
Meanwhile New Zealand forwards’ coach Steve Hansen claimed that it might be better if he got his forwards not to contest the opposition scrum if trying to get a shove on meant they would concede a penalty when the other pack collapses.
As it happens, the only card Lewis handed out in that game was to a Kiwi – replacement Daniel Braid.
Interestingly the rate at which All Blacks were able to offend in key areas of the field and get away with it became a hot topic last year. Referees are slow to bin Richie McCaw because of his stature, yet Lewis, who proved himself capable of reffing the offence rather than the man, no matter who he was, suddenly gets taken out of the picture by IRB referee manager Paddy O’Brien, himself a Kiwi.
Of course O’Brien maintains that he called it as he saw it, and that the negative comments from the Kiwi camp had nothing to do with Lewis not making the RWC panel. Nevertheless, the All Blacks will feel their chances of success are enhanced with him out of the picture. It also makes for a 6/4 split in favour of the Northern Hemisphere, which if you’re a nervous New Zealander would have been a whole lot worse at 7/3.
And who is the man to benefit from all of this? Eh, one Steve Walsh. Also a Kiwi, Walsh got dumped by the New Zealand union in 2009 for turning up at refereeing conference direct from an all night bender. That followed sideline altercations with England personnel in the 2003 World Cup and with Shane Horgan on the 2005 Lions tour. And yet he goes – as does Jonathan Kaplan who clearly has issues with the difference between a legal try and an illegal one – and Lewis gets the cold shoulder.
Paddy O’Brien’s tenure in the IRB has been uninspiring. Leaving out Lewis hasn’t helped that image.