'Carnage' - referee Wayne Barnes on Ireland’s most notorious World Cup warm-up match and why he’s hanging up his whistle
Referee Wayne Barnes has lifted the lid on the “carnage” that unfolded on a French rugby pitch at ‘The Battle of Bayonne’ on the cusp of the 2007 tournament.
The English official, who is preparing to go to his fourth Rugby World Cup, also spoke of the personal reasons why he may hang up his whistle at the end of this year’s jamboree in Japan.
Barnes, who is in Dublin for this weekend’s clash between Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium, will also referee the pivotal clash between Ireland and Scotland in two weeks’ time.
It is now over a decade since he was asked to be the man in the middle at the now-notorious match in Bayonne, to prepare the class of 2007 for the World Cup in France.
The game went down in Irish rugby history for the wrong reasons with talisman Brian O’Driscoll suffering a fractured sinus from a punch that threatened his entire tournament.
Barnes recalled being told about the match: “It was only about two weeks before the Rugby World Cup. I thought ‘aren’t Ireland playing France in one of the main games in the group’? Well, yeah…”
O’Driscoll later admitted that with Ireland due to play France in just a few weeks’ time, the club side were “more interested in kicking the sh** out of us than putting points on the scoreboard”.
At 28 years old, Barnes found himself refereeing a match that seemed to resemble a battlefield – something he now describes as “an interesting fixture”.
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“You’d run away from one breakdown and you’d look around and there were people splattered over the floor. This was in the days before TMOs… there was a lot going on.”
Former Ireland winger Tommy Bowe, who was speaking to Barnes as part of an Emirates World Cup Preview event, was himself involved in the match - which he described as “unbelieveable”.
“I was there as cannon fodder,” he said. “I remember Brian O’Driscoll going up to you (Barnes) and saying you’ve got to sort this out - and you saying ‘What am I going to do? You arranged this game, I’ve got to referee it!’’”
Times have changed, and with the 2019 tournament looming, referees have been in the spotlight for a number of high profile red cards dished out amid a sharp focus on player protection. Lowering the height of the tackle and preventing head-high challengers have been a particular focus, Barnes acknowledges – but he does not believe the World Cup will be dominated by the refs.
“We have been trying to improve player safety… particularly in regard to high tackles,” he points out. “In the last Six Nations there were no red cards. There was one yellow card for foul play, so this isn’t us reinventing the wheel.
“Players reacted really well in the Six Nations.
“All we’re saying is just tackle a little lower. Of course there’s discussion in the media around that.”
Acknowledging that referee consistency is key, he believes that having a group of 23 global officials together for eight weeks at the tournament will prove crucial. But he says that referees won’t be overawed by the occasion and worry too much about ‘spoiling the game’ by dishing out cards.
“Being together will help us get more consistent so when something happens we hope we make the right decision. But rugby has grey areas… that’s rugby.
“If we’ve got any doubt as referees we’re not going to be sending players off. (But) if someone runs up in the first minute of Scotland versus Ireland and kicks someone in the head then I’m not going to think about spoiling the game. It’s not me that’s spoiled the game.”
Speaking about one of the biggest calls he made where Irish rugby was concerned, Barnes recalled the Grand Slam decider against Wales in 2009.
He awarded the last-seconds penalty against Ireland after Paddy Wallace infringed at a ruck, but fortunately Stephen Jones’ match-winning effort fell short.
“He still wakes up sometimes with the dread of: what if that ball went over?” said Bowe in reference to his old team-mate Wallace. “Our first Grand Slam for 61 years and you nearly ruined it!”
But Barnes again argued that referees cannot stop to think too hard about the seismic after-effects of moments such as these. “You can’t think about the consequences, you don’t have time. You just referee what’s in front of you.”
Bowe added that in preparation for the humidity of Japan, the Ireland camp had been training with balls that had been sprayed with water to make them more slippery – particularly for hookers and scrum-halves to practice with.
Barnes recalled refereeing in the Land of the Rising Sun: “Midday in Tokyo and at half time you’re just trying to cool down – socks on your head full of ice and freezing towels on you.”
He believes that the fast pitches will lead to some flowing rugby, but teams must learn to deal with the heat and humidity. “It could be the difference between winning a quarter final and not winning a quarter final – small margins”.
Barnes’ trip to Japan may be his last outing as he is preparing to retire after the tournament.
He said he had not made a full decision yet but had strong family reasons to take a step back from the game he has refereed since he suffered a cruciate ligament injury at age 15.
“As a referee... every four years you probably sit back, talk to your family about what’s next. That’s what I’ll do after Tokyo. On September 11 my daughter starts school, but then I’m away for eight weeks – so I’m very popular at home, with my wife working full-time as well.”
He will miss the friendships he made around the world, the camaraderie and the big matches: “but I won’t miss the training or the gym”.
Barnes and Bowe were speaking at the Emirates World Cup Preview event, organised by the airline which will carry at least 3,000 Irish supporters from Dublin to Japan this autumn.
Wayne Barnes was in Dublin as part of Emirates partnership with RWC.