Irish are ahead of the game

Nation's referees are flourishing while wider profession is vilified

Des Berry

If no man is an island, an international rugby union referee could certainly be forgiven for feeling a little isolated these days.

The refereeing profession has come under constant scrutiny, controversy and vilification as the game lurches from crisis to crisis with support fading in the southern hemisphere and the spectacle becoming bogged down in mediocrity in the northern hemisphere.

It has led coaches, players, commentators, anyone with an ounce of sense and some without even that, to lend their opinions to a simple problem that has become complicated by time, the heat of debate and constant fiddling with the laws of the game.

All this leads back to where the laws hang -- on the shoulders of the on-field arbiter of the game, the referee.

Ireland's Alain Rolland is recognised as the best in the business, taking charge of the 2007 World Cup final. He is the standard that all others aspire to in the game.

It is rare to see him embroiled in a controversy or stinging from the spicy words sent out by coaches in the heat of a disgruntled, immediate post-match commentary, such as those spat out by Saracens coach Brendan Venter last week.

The idea that the problems embedded in the game can be solved by the guarantee of a full-time profession and greater financial reward is not supported by Rolland's day-to-day life.

The three-times capped former Ireland scrum-half is gainfully employed as a mortgage broker in the city of Dublin.

Like the body, the mind needs exercise. All Black coach Graham Henry and Leinster's Michael Cheika are two of many to talk about the benefit to players of exploring intellectually stimulating interests outside the game.

It is important to see the world as a wider expanse than that which passes inside the rectangular stretch of a pitch. Focus is one thing; obsession quite another.

Owen Doyle, the IRFU director of referee development, overseas the production line of Irish referees: "They are fully professional, but they are not full-time professionals. They are either part-time at work or have been able to make themselves available whenever needed.


"My own view is that having a job gives them time to get away from refereeing to think about other things. There is so much time you can spend analysing your performances. You need to get your mind away from it. It is essential."

The difference between a good and a great referee is judgement, the split-second it takes to connect the infringement to the decision. Surely, the key to Rolland's wonderful judgement is that he played international rugby for Ireland on three occasions, making his debut against Argentina in 1990.

Moreover, Rolland played at scrum-half for Leinster 40 times. It is the one position in the backline where he had an even better view than the referee at what was actually going on in the scrum and the breakdown.

That is not to say every international referee should be an ex-scrum-half. But, there is a case for the International Rugby Board and the respective unions making greater effort to attract former high-profile players into refereeing.

"We would certainly like to see more guys, who have had a good playing career at a good level, coming into refereeing," admitted Doyle.

The next goal in Rolland's path must be to become only the second referee after South Africa's Andre Watson (1999 and 2003) to take charge of two World Cup finals. Doubtless, he would concede this personal ambition to see Ireland make their first final in New Zealand in 2011.

In fairness, the paucity of talented referees coming through the system can be gauged from the International Rugby Board's (IRB) decision last April to nominate 17, down from 19 in 2008-2009, whistlers to what is known as the Elite Referees Panel. Since then Australia's Matt Goddard has retired to further reduce the total to 16.

Originally, the retirement of New Zealanders Lyndon Bray, Paul Honiss and Frenchman Joel Jutge, in addition to the exclusion of another Kiwi Steve Walsh, for a breach of discipline, was compensated by the promotion of France's Romain Poite and Limerick's Peter Fitzgibbon.

"The IRB has in place a dedicated High Performance structure for the development of international referees and works hard with its member unions to identify up-and-coming talent and promote consistency at all levels of the game," said Paddy O'Brien, the IRB referees' manager.


Maybe the IRB should look no further than Ireland, where their head offices are located, for a template for developing a proper conveyor belt of potential international referees.

The IRFU has a dedicated Referee Department headed up by former international referee, Owen Doyle. The investment in referee development has produced some of the most highly regarded referees in world rugby.

There are currently four Irishmen on the International Referee Panel: Alain Rolland, Alan Lewis, George Clancy and Peter Fitzgibbon.

Alain Rolland and Alan Lewis were appointed to referee at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Both were appointed to referee the quarter-finals with Rolland given the honour of refereeing the final.

In addition, Ireland provides nine of the panel of 21 referees listed to officiate for the Magners League, the set completed by Dudley Phillips, David Keane, Colin Stanley, John Lacey and Simon McDowell. There are currently 50 referees on the IRFU National Panels.

In hindsight, Saracens coach Venter's recent, rehearsed lash at referees was born out of frustration at the delivery of the rules from the shrill end of the whistle.

While Venter's bullets had to be fired, his aim was way off line. It is a little like shooting sharp comments at a waiter because the chef has made a dog's dinner out of a gourmet dish.

There are also times when coaches like to deflect attention away from the inadequacies of their players by pointing the finger in the direction of those most unable to defend themselves.

"Rugby is the only field sport where the game continues after a tackle has been made. The contest for possession continues. There are a lot of 50-50 decisions," said Doyle.

"It is inevitable there are problems (at the breakdown). If the referee is coming in from the left he will see one thing. If he comes in from the right he will see another. It is a worry for teams who play conservatively. They dwell on the possibility of conceding penalties.

"We have also seen when teams, like Leinster and Ulster, decide to play positively, offloading, moving the ball out of the tackle, that there can be wonderful rugby. When you have that attitude, you have less of a problem."

Is it the law makers not the law arbiters that should have stood in the line of Venter's fire?

It is no exaggeration to suggest the greatest challenge facing rugby union is to close the yawning chasm between the rules and the interpretation of them around the globe.

The answer must be to make the breakdown a more easily understood facet of the game. It is not the referees that have changed. It is the game itself and the rules that govern it.

Simplicity is genius and it could take a genius to unravel the mess.