Wednesday 18 October 2017

Nothing to be gained by blaming man with impossible job

Coaches will lose focus if they obsess over referees' mistakes, writes Conor O'Shea

Referee's such as Roman Poite (pictured) have an almost impossible job
Referee's such as Roman Poite (pictured) have an almost impossible job

Conor O'Shea

When you are immersed in something, you tend to become very one-eyed. As a coach, after every game you reflect on any number of things, the areas that you controlled or got wrong and need to improve on; but sometimes your immediate response and your angst is focused on something you did not control - the actions and decisions of the referee, who I feel has an almost impossible job.

Last weekend we saw an outstanding Connacht performance laced with skill and courage - with stand-out performances from the likes of Jack Carty and Matt Healy - but in the immediate aftermath a lot of the ire from everyone was aimed at Roman Poite. Fair play to Pat Lam, he was not one of those, but Poite's decision not to penalise Tom Palmer of Gloucester in the last play of normal time with the score standing at 25-18 in Connacht's favour was wrong.

Connacht may not have gone on to beat Bordeaux in today's play-off final but that decision could prove hugely costly to the province in terms of finance, recruitment, and retention of their best players.

The problem for Poite is that every decision he makes is under the microscope, and in a game as fast and as intense as last week's, just as the players would have been mentally and physically exhausted, so too would the bloke with the whistle. Yet despite all the mistakes, dropped balls, missed lineouts etc, we will all focus on him and his inadequacies.

Truth is he didn't have that bad a game but like a goalkeeper in football or a fullback in rugby, the referee is exposed and his decisions micro-analysed. Slow-motion replays allow us to determine what he should have done. Hindsight as opposed to real time makes decisions an exact science.

I find it funny that when I go to a game as a neutral I don't get as caught up in the decision-making of the man in the middle. Last week's match was an incredible advert for the game of rugby; the trouble is, if you are from Connacht, that isn't enough.

Ask any Kiwi supporter or player about Wayne Barnes and they will all point to their match against France in the 2007 World Cup and that forward pass they feel cost them the title. Ask me and I would say that was one of the most memorable games of rugby I have ever seen, and if I had a choice of a referee to officiate one of our games I would choose Barnes any day of the week. I know loads of people who would think I need my head examined! Wayne makes mistakes like we all do but he reflects and admits where he has gone wrong. That mightn't help you in defeat but at least it makes you feel comfortable that nothing has been swept under the carpet.

The hardest part of coaching or managing a team is dealing with the uncontrollable. Would Munster have been in Belfast last night if Nigel Owens hadn't reviewed the final score for the Ospreys that would have knocked Anthony Foley's men out in last weekend's semi-final? If Nigel hadn't asked the question there would have been no last-day final for Paul O'Connell. Think of the reaction that would have had. But Nigel could have missed the offence and the consequences would have been pretty huge.

The decisions made by referees in all sports have huge consequences for everyone involved, and what you have to hope is that the referee does not become the talking point, because if they do then you know it is more likely to be a controversy defining the outcome.

I am often caught in conversations reminiscing about the great referees of the past, the likes of John West, Clive Norling, Ed Morrison. I am sure they would be the first to say that they probably made more mistakes than the modern-day referee, but in their day allowing the game to flow while mayhem was happening all around them was a sign of doing a good job. Nowadays every breakdown, pass, tackle, try, maul is being micro-analysed and you can find an offence in every phase of play. Each offence ignored is a dagger to the team and supporters it impacts so we have to hope that officials are given a break when they make mistakes. But for all that, what they cannot afford to do is lack consistency in their approach and start refereeing differently as games wear on - that is what will bring criticism.

My wish as Ireland approach this autumn's World Cup is that, whether we win or lose, we are not looking back berating a referee for the outcome; but rather that we are able to reflect on a campaign where we have been the masters of our own destiny and we can blame ourselves, not the bloke with the whistle who has an almost impossible job.

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