Clive Norling, one of the world's top referees in the amateur era, recalls the inaugural World Cup and asks whether modern officiating could take a revolutionary turn…
Clive Norling was working as a college lecturer in Swansea when the first Rugby World Cup rolled around in 1987. His first thought? I’ll give that a miss.
His gripe was that the organisers were only taking a maximum of two match officials from one country, which meant breaking up the established ‘team of three’ – referee Norling and touchjudges Derek Bevan and Winston Jones – supplied by Wales during the Five Nations. “I said I wouldn’t go unless we could travel as a three-man team,” Norling says. “But my dad persuaded me to change my mind so that I could represent Wales.”
And so the man regarded by many as the world’s best rugby referee in the Seventies and Eighties found himself taking the whistle at McLean Park in Napier on the very first weekend of World Cup rugby, Canada v Tonga in Pool Two.
“Tonga were very religious and had to get permission to play on a Sunday off a priest; the priest gave his blessing. It was a lovely day and Canada won it at a trot (37-4), the first time they had played in New Zealand. The first try was a penalty try against Tonga for collapsing a scrum on the line, and it finished seven tries to one.
“Being a Sunday, New Zealand TV weren’t allowed to broadcast any advertising so at half-time instead of going to adverts, a camera wandered over to film the Canada huddle, this being the days of the five-minute turnaround. Their captain, the lock Hans de Goede, was giving a very inspirational speech and I remember that the country of New Zealand was impressed by that.”
There were 16 teams at that inaugural competition, and each of the 14 referees were allocated two games. Norling’s second outing was for a humdinger of a quarter-final, France v Fiji at Eden Park.
“It was my first game there since the flour bomb Test (New Zealand v South Africa in 1981), so whenever I heard a plane overhead I got a bit twitchy. It was a tremendous match, some argued the best game of that World Cup. Fiji threw the ball around like it was sevens and the French didn’t know where they were in the first half. It was like basketball at times.
“The scores were close in the second half when the Fijian outside-half was running with the ball in one hand as he crossed the 22 and it shot out of his hand. In the end France ground
them down, 31-16. The scrum and maul were Fiji’s weaknesses, as it was for other southern hemisphere sides. In Canada-Tonga, the Tongan loosehead’s head wasn’t in the first scrum, and it was the same in France-Fiji. There’s more to the game than running rugby.”
Indeed there is, and Norling arguably fell victim to the politics swirling through the sport because when it came to deciding who took charge of the final plum fixtures, the Welshman found his services no longer required. “Myself and Roger Quittenton (England) were the most notable casualties of the referees’ committee. It was a shock – the media couldn’t believe it when we were sent home,” says Norling, who nevertheless points out that refereeing standards were high and that anyone would have graced the final.
In the event, Australia, who were miffed to miss out on their expected place in the final after Serge Blanco’s dramatic late try in the semi-final, were gratified to see one of their own, Kerry Fitzgerald, take charge of the New Zealand-France climax. Englishman Fred Howard, a strong contender, had to be content with the third-place play-off.
Norling returned to his happy life in South Wales: in the week, lecturing about business to students at Swansea IHE; at weekends, enjoying the fun of refereeing – between 1968 and 1992 he officiated in more than 1,000 games, including 35 Test matches. The sport demanded less of officials then, though each man had his idiosyncrasies. Quittenton, for example, was a stickler for routine and at LA airport on the way to New Zealand had donned his tracksuit and run round the transit lounge to work up a sweat. The Wales squad was there too and a few of them delighted in running behind him in a snake of players.
“Roger was a fitness fanatic,” says Norling, “whereas I was never a big one for fitness; training sessions could cause injury. I was light and walked a lot. I used to run up and down the stairs at Swansea Institute, six flights up and six down.”
In 1998, as Norling neared his 50th birthday, he decided to make his hobby his job by becoming the WRU’s Director of Referees. He was there for five years but the stress of the role, with its remorseless 24/7 demands, took a heavy toll. “With no hobby, I had no relief to turn to because of course refereeing had been my hobby,” he says. He had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with clinical depression for the next seven years.
His attempts to climb out of the pit of despair were thwarted by a succession of crises – his mum died, he needed emergency bowel surgery, his dad died. “It was a domino effect,” he says, and he’s indebted more than he can say to his wife Mair, who left her job to care for him full-time.
Breaking the cycle
In the end it was something a friend said to him that allowed Norling to break loose from the vortex. “He told me not to beat myself up. Give yourself permission to do something or not do something. Tell yourself, ‘I give myself permission not to get up’, ‘I give myself permission to put on some clothes’, ‘I give myself permission to have a shave’.” Norling, who had become reclusive and at times felt suicidal during his illness, came off the tablets and regained a sense of purpose and optimism.
He returned to his work studying for a PhD at Cardiff Business School – he received his doctorate last year – and became a Research Champion for the National Centre for Mental Health, based at Cardiff University. “They wanted those who’d suffered mental illness to talk with researchers about their experiences.”
He doesn’t envy modern referees, even those with six-figure salaries, because not only are they subjected to forensic media scrutiny but they can be vilified by extremists – as Nigel Owens for one has been on Twitter. Nor is jetting off to the other side of the world conducive to a settled home life.
“I enjoyed lecturing and going out to referee on a Saturday and to other countries. But I wouldn’t want to be away like they are nowadays; your home life is destroyed when it becomes your full-time job.
“The pressure on modern referees is totally different. Professional players are paid to win matches and so paid not to lose; you get more professional fouls: killing the ball, taking
players off the ball, slowing the ball to see if the referee will do anything. You don’t want to hear whistle all day.”
Sport v business
He has some thought-provoking views on the dichotomy between sport and business, and the difficulty of satisfying the needs of both camps. For example, he suggests you could remove many a try-line controversy by adopting the American Football system of merely having to walk the ball over the line – but says such a move would be counter-productive.
“You could remove the controversy but as a sport you want drama and controversy, to keep it in the public eye. Wales and New Zealand have a famous sporting rivalry that stems from the disallowed Deans try in 1905 but if we’d had a TMO then, there would have been no controversy, so would that rivalry exist?
“The TMO has the best view, he has all the cameras and replays, so does the ref have to be on the field? Eventually the ref could become subservient to the TMO, who will come through on the ref’s mike, ‘Just missed a forward pass’. It could go that way.
“But again, if technology makes every decision accurate, if every decision was right, the game might become boring. There would be no controversy so would the atmosphere die, and would the business die?”
Life to the full
It’s wonderful to hear Norling so invigorated again by the game that he served as a second-row at Neath Grammar School until the age of 18, before a back injury curtailed his fledgling playing career. After those years in the doldrums, he’s making up for lost time: his to-do list includes writing a book on the history of rugby’s laws, as well as an autobiography, and he retains an active role at weekends mentoring young referees or watching games at his local club Birchgrove, the village near Swansea where he has lived for 41 years. He became club president in 2012.
He still attends Internationals at the Millennium Stadium, and is relishing the prospect of a World Cup in which Wales have a fighting chance of doing something special.
“Any one of six or seven teams could win it,” says the 65-year-old. “I try to watch it not from a refereeing angle but just with my coaching hat on and see how rugby is evolving. Modern rugby is all about defence but I want teams to be positive in the way they use the ball. You
want tries and excitement but unfortunately we’re seeing the attitude creeping in where the result is the be-all and end-all. Modern fans want more than that, they want to be entertained.”
He thinks Pool A (containing Wales) is too close to call. “All you need is an injury to a key player and it could be the difference; small margins will determine the result. Fingers crossed.”