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Peter Bills: Kaplan will lay down the law

By Peter Bills

The rugby men of Wales and Ireland had better be warned. The southern hemisphere referee who will take charge of tomorrow’s Six Nations clash between the countries in Cardiff is in no mood for nonsense.

South African official Jonathan Kaplan is not likely to take kindly to the sort of stuff Welsh referee Nigel Owens put up with, especially at scrum time, in the match between Scotland and Ireland in Edinburgh, two weeks ago.

The shenanigans at the set scrums plus assorted other offences by a group of players as wily as a wagon load of monkeys, nearly drove Owens to distraction.

Just about every offence in the book was on display at Murrayfield in a game of rank indiscipline by both sets of players. Yet Owens did not give a single yellow card.

But if Ireland’s shockingly indisciplined players think they will get away with more of the same in Cardiff, they had better think again. Kaplan will meet both coaches and captains before the match and will stress one factor above all others — be positive.

No referee can enforce the precision of execution among players in a particular game. If they’re just not good enough to execute accurately on the day then it isn’t his fault. Nor is it his job to help them.

But Kaplan will ensure that negativity is not allowed to cover the match.

He will demand players stay on their feet at the breakdown, do not seal off and will try to make sure ball is rapidly re-cycled from the breakdown.

There are two reasons for this state of affairs, which ought to concentrate the minds of the players in this important game. The first is the speed at which most matches have been played in the early weekends of the southern hemisphere’s Super 15 tournament this year. A premium has been put on ensuring the ball is freed instantly at the breakdown. This is seen, correctly, as the key to the type of game most teams want to play in the Super 15.

Most referees will not tolerate players slowing down release of second phase possession and Kaplan is especially hot on this. It might be a different hemisphere in Cardiff but Wales and Ireland should understand that Kaplan’s determination to officiate in a positive light will not change this weekend.

The second reason is that Kaplan is currently on top of his game. He had a spell last year when some of his performances seemed to fall away from what had been a consistently high standard. Whatever the reason for that, he has started this year in fine form.

By nature, Kaplan is unlike referees such as his fellow South Africans Craig Joubert and Marius Jonker. He believes if the referee is positive and imparts that philosophy to the players before a game, they have every chance to match his outlook. As a consequence, the whole spectacle can benefit hugely.

He is not enamoured of players who show indiscipline or continue to break the laws. He has never been afraid to use yellow cards to enforce his point.

So, Wales and Ireland have been warned. They would be well advised to desist from such practices this weekend.

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