Six Nations referee 'got it right'
Former All Black hooker Sean Fitzpatrick tips Ireland to win competition but is impressed by Wales
All Black great Sean Fitzpatrick has waded into the debate over Six Nations refereeing, saying Jonathan Kaplan got it right during England's controversial loss to Ireland last weekend.
Fitzpatrick, in town as a guest speaker at last night's fund-raising dinner for the Hong Kong Tens, backed the performance of the South African referee, who was heavily criticised by the England camp after their 19-13 loss.
'They shouldn't be worrying about [refereeing],' Fitzpatrick said. 'They should be worrying about the fact they didn't play that well. Kaplan refereed the game well.' However, Fitzpatrick didn't agree that disciplinary action should have been taken against England coach Andy Robinson for his post-match criticism of Kaplan, who ruled against England in two try-scoring situations.
England's Rugby Football Union is investigating Robinson's comments and he faces the possibility of a disrepute charge.
Fitzpatrick, who was known to referee a few games himself during his 92-cap career as All Black hooker, 51 of them as captain, said coaches should be allowed to criticise officials whose decisions often affected the course of matches.
Fitzpatrick has been a close observer of the current Six Nations tournament as a commentator for the BBC and Sky and has been impressed with what he's seen.
'It's been fantastic, one of the best tournaments in the world. Coming from the southern hemisphere it's great as a spectator.'
He tipped Ireland to win it, 'because they've got more world-class players', but he has been impressed by Wales' displays. 'The Welsh are playing very well. That game last week was superb.'
As for England's slump in form - the world champions have lost nine of their 14 tests since lifting the Webb-Ellis trophy in November 2003 - he said it was as much a case of the other teams catching up as England slipping back.
'They're missing some of their best players, and they're struggling for confidence. And the other teams have stepped up to the mark.'
The loss of talismanic fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, who hasn't played for England since the World Cup, should not have been that big a factor, he suggested.
'They play on that, but they've got other good players like Ollie Barclay and Charlie Hodgson.'
If anyone is an expert on the engine room it's Fitzpatrick, always an indomitable presence in the tight stuff, and that was the area where England were failing, he said. 'England aren't doing the forward stuff. They've got the forwards. But against Ireland they were sending two forwards and two backs into the rucks. They're not getting the go-forward.' In-form England or not, Fitzpatrick still expects that a strong Lions team will take on the All Blacks when they tour there in June and July.
'There's enough good players there to make a good team,' he said, though he did agree with former All Black teammate Zinzan Brooke that Lawrence Dallaglio should be included, despite his retirement from international rugby.
Fitzpatrick captained the All Blacks to a hard-fought series victory the last time the Lions toured New Zealand, in 1993, and he is well aware what a special event such a tour is.
'It's the only one of those sort of tours left,' he said. 'You're playing against the home unions and the tradition of great Lions teams.' He expects a tremendous series.
'The problem we've got is that we won't have had tons of test matches. But the All Blacks won't be tired. We've shown we play best in the middle of our season.
'It's going to be great for New Zealand and also for British rugby.'
Fitzpatrick is a keen follower of the Sevens game, and said he would be keeping a close eye on the efforts of Gordon Tietjens and his New Zealand team during this month's World Cup Sevens.
Fitzpatrick has been here for the Sevens once, eight years ago, and loved the experience.
'It's a life sentence,' he said. 'If you come once you want to keep on coming back.'