McHugh climbs back in the saddle

David McHugh did not become one of the world’s top rugby referees by shirking tough decisions and, regardless of his still-tender left shoulder, he is not going to start now. Others may still wince at pictures of last month’s assault by a pot-bellied Springbok fan in Durban in a Tri-Nations match against New Zealand but, if McHugh has any mental scars before his comeback, he hides them well.

The 46-year-old Irish official is due back on whistle-blowing duty this weekend in an English premiership club game, Northampton vs Bath, and it will be six weeks to the day since he fell victim, literally, to one of the crassest assaults ever seen on a rugby field. Since then, he says, he has not once contemplated walking away from the game, which makes him either a brave man or an insanely thick-skinned one.

“It’s like everything else in life, if you fall off a horse the best thing to do is get back up on it,” he says.
“I’m a referee and I want to get back refereeing as soon as possible.”

There is even surprise at the suggestion that he might not want the hassle of high-profile refereeing any longer. “You always have a choice but it’s my job and it’s something I enjoy. I’m looking forward to it.”

The entire world of rugby will applaud him because, even if six weeks is usually long enough for dislocated shoulder joints to heal, McHugh accepts that he cannot know precisely how he will react emotionally until he takes the field.

“That’s about the size of it, isn’t it? But if there’s any problem I won’t do the game. I’ll be totally guided by medical opinion. I was due to do Neath vs Llanelli last weekend but was put back for a week to give the shoulder a chance to strengthen up a bit more.”

Until Pieter van Zyl, his boorish attacker who last week pleaded guilty to common assault, is sentenced on October 28, the Limerick-born McHugh is unwilling to expand on the events of August 10—“There won’t be any comment from me on anything that’s happened in South Africa until the criminal sentencing has finished”—leaving others to sift through the various implications of the affair.

Although McHugh had given a penalty try against the home side in the first half, it took nothing more than the award of a contentious scrum put-in to New Zealand two minutes after the interval to prompt Van Zyl, clad in a bulging Springbok rugby jersey, to lumber on and wrestle the shocked official to the ground before the opposing flankers Richie McCaw and AJ Venter intervened.

Van Zyl’s excuse, if that is the right word, was that he could no longer stomach the way South African teams were dealt with by referees. But McHugh expresses no qualms about returning to South Africa—“I’ve no control over my appointments”—and his many friends and colleagues within refereeing also believe that the incident will prove a one-off.

“If the McHugh incident resurrects itself somewhere else, it’s up to the game to deal with it, not us ... we’re not hiring bodyguards,” says England’s elite referees manager Colin High. “It won’t bother McHugh. I wouldn’t think he’ll ever forget it but just because you have a bump in the car doesn’t mean you don’t go out and drive next week.

“The South African referee Jonathan Kaplan is doing England vs New Zealand at Twickenham in November but the only thing he’s worried about is whether he’s preparing right. He hasn’t e-mailed us and said: ‘Is my security up to scratch?’ It won’t even enter his head.

“My guess is that when McHugh walks out at Northampton he’ll be thinking ‘My God, this place has changed’ rather than ‘Are any of the crowd going to attack me?’”

Even so High does not paint an enticing picture for anyone contemplating a career as an elite referee. “Everybody’s had a mouthful. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. I’ve got a letter on my desk from an irate supporter this very week complaining about some decision and saying ‘No wonder we have incidents such as the McHugh attack.’”

McHugh, a keen six-handicapper, does admit his recent lack of golf has been a frustration but better days are in prospect.

“If he finds his best form I would say he’s a candidate to do next year’s World Cup final,” says High. There would be no more fitting appointment.—

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