It was an hour to kick off and the tension was building in the home dressing room at the RDS ahead of a big Irish derby. My career was coming to an end, but I remember clearly the moment when I first saw a shift in the behaviour of Irish referees towards players.
The match officials came in to check the studs and have a chat with the front-rows. I was no star but had been around Irish rugby since 1995 and this guy had refereed me at All Ireland League with Clontarf and at provincial level for Connacht and Leinster on numerous occasions.
When he called the starting front-row and bench into a huddle he asked who was the starting hooker today? I said, It’s me sir. What’s your name he asked? Bernard, I replied. He did the same with all five of us, gave us our instructions and left. The message was clear, I am the headmaster and you are the pupils.
In contrast, the English, Welsh, Scottish and French officials always seemed to make the effort to build a bit of rapport with the teams. They knew our names and were comfortable with small talk. This breaks the ice and helps everyone perform better.
Despite being a Tier 1 nation our contribution on this front to the world game has fallen away. Empires rarely fall overnight; their decline is usually gradual. Ireland had four referees — Donal Courtney, Alan Lewis, Alain Rolland and David McHugh — at the 2003 Rugby World Cup. In 2019, there was no Irish referee at the tournament in Japan, although Andrew Brace was brought as a touch judge for his development.
Despite spending more money than ever on professionalising referees, we have fallen off the cliff in terms of top-class representatives. How has this happened and what is being done to address it?
Refereeing should not just be about your ability to run a good bleep test or your knowledge of the laws. Getting ex-professionals to referee isn’t always the best solution and hasn’t happened in the way that was hoped. Refereeing is a craft and it’s built up with years of experience.
The best refs build relationships and players respect that. It’s no coincidence that Alan Lewis is successful in the insurance game, Wayne Barnes is also a barrister and Nigel Owens hosts his own TV chat show. They all communicate very well and seem to like people. The French referees have been slower to go down the full-time route as their former referee manager Didier Mené, who was a basketballer before becoming an international referee, believed the best refs should have another career and multiple interests. He felt that it helps them deal with pressure and also relate to players and coaches better.
The first four rounds of the URC have been littered with errors and also confusion around decision-making. The fact that South African eyes are on the competition in a meaningful way now and also the larger audiences through the mix of pay-per-view and free-to-air coverage means that it’s on the radar more. There is a view that the poor officiating has been caused by the fact that the URC referee manager post is vacant at the moment following the departure of former RFU referee Greg Garner.
Having a referee manager is better than not having one, but filling the post is only part of the solution. It gives coaches the chance to review matches and incidents and vent their frustrations through one point of contact. But I would argue that the nature of this cross-border competition has led to individual country referee managers diluting the message or protecting their protégés.
The game has moved on very quickly over the last few years and as we saw with the Rassie Erasmus video after the first Lions Test these frustrations aren’t exclusive to the URC. A big part of Erasmus’s frustration was that he couldn’t get hold of the key people involved in the match until the Tuesday but the working week for teams starts on Monday, and he and his coaches wanted to be able to give clarity to his players. This was the biggest issue with the old PRO14 as far as I was concerned when I was coaching at the Dragons. We would send our clips in on a Sunday night. They would be a mixture of referee or TMO errors and a few points that we wanted clarity on. We would regularly flag over 15 errors and on a bad day 25 or more.
I think most of us always found Greg very sympathetic and understanding. He would agree with a lot of the issues we raised and promised to speak to the referee involved. That was it. We had no idea how that conversation went and if the referee agreed or not. You might not have that referee again for a while or even again that season, so in terms of closing the feedback loop it was very unsatisfactory. I hope the next person in the post is allowed fix the political issues hampering high-performance review processes.
Eventually I got tired of apologies. In a Welsh derby match with Cardiff Blues I felt we had been harshly treated by the referee, Ian Davies. We lost the game and I felt I had to make a stand. I didn’t criticise him in the post-match interviews, even though I thought he had been terrible. I sent the clips in and got an apology from Garner. So at our weekly press conference on Wednesday I highlighted how poor the performance was by the referee.
I might have said at least Dick Turpin wore a mask but I can’t remember if that was on or off the record. I knew that I would get hauled in front of the WRU for bringing the game into disrepute but it was worth it to show my players, supporters and officials that we were not going to accept being treated unfairly anymore. I was given a two-match ban but it was telling that Ian Davies was diverted away from refereeing soon after and became a TMO where he hasn’t been without controversy.
A good TMO means you can get away with an average or inexperienced referee but an average TMO could destroy even a top-class referee on a given day.
Why does a TMO have to be a former ref? Does an air traffic controller have to be a former pilot? Could we not get former team analysts to do the job? People in this role are experts in rugby, very good at analysing clips quickly and usually able to communicate concisely with the coaches. The referee fraternity might argue that they don’t know the laws, I would argue they could be learned. Surely the most important thing is to be able to make decisions at an elite level?
It’s interesting that in Aussie Rules they are using 360 degree virtual reality technology to improve umpires’ decision making. Like how they train aeroplane pilots, they spend a lot of time in the simulator before they get to take control of the plane. The Top 14 referees have brought in conflict resolution and hostage negotiators to understand how to communicate better. Are we at the cutting edge in our training or are we happy doing what we have always done?
Should we allow the match referee to have his own specialist TMO in a similar way that a GAA referee brings his umpire team? Or a golfer has his trusted caddy? I know Nigel Owens built up a strong relationship with Derek Bevan as his TMO, trust was built match by match. It seemed to help both perform better. I don’t know with any certainty the best way forward but I do think we need to change the direction we are heading. The next World Cup is only two years away, how many Irish officials will be on the plane?