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IRB's Kiwi referees manager steps in to defend Barnes from vitriolic New Zealanders

By Chris Hewett

Four days after the All Blacks' fifth consecutive World Cup failure, that section of the stricken New Zealand rugby community finding it impossible to accept that their team were beaten fair and square by an inspired band of Frenchmen are still scouring the planet for someone to blame.

Wayne Barnes, the Englishman who refereed the game at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday night, is comfortably the most popular candidate, but his performance is being stoutly defended by a man from Invercargill, of all place on God's earth.

This man happens to be Paddy O'Brien, who presided over 37 international matches in a long career as a Test-class official and is now the International Rugby Board's referees manager.

"I think it's a disgrace – people have to grow up," he said yesterday, reacting to some of the more vitriolic outbursts by his countrymen, which included mock obituaries of Barnes on websites and calls for the Forest of Dean barrister to be "shot by a sniper".

O'Brien continued: "I'm a very proud Kiwi and I wear my heart on my sleeve when the All Blacks are playing, but it doesn't change my judgement. Sport is about winning and losing, and New Zealand lost. Let's get on with life.

"It's a sad reflection and I'd like to say that this is not representative of all New Zealand people."

Barnes, at 28 the youngest of the referees at this tournament and still one of the most highly regarded despite missing a forward pass in the build-up to Yannick Jauzion's crucial try in Cardiff, has the full support of the IRB, which is only right and proper.

In an official statement, the board condemned the criticism pouring out of New Zealand, some of it from very senior figures in that country's rugby hierarchy, as "completely unwarranted".

Meanwhile, the French back-room staff said 29 of their 30 players were fit for selection ahead of Saturday night's semi-final against England at the Stade de France, adding that the exception, the Clermont Auvergne scrum-half Pierre Mignoni, would be back in training by the end of the week.

France's two major concerns – Olivier Milloud, the Bourgoin prop, and Serge Betsen, the Biarritz flanker – have fully recovered from worrying injuries suffered during the victory over the All Blacks.

"The bodies are bruised by the souls are not," said Jo Maso, the manager. "People recuperate more quickly after a win."

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