Thursday 22 March 2018

'It's the closest buzz you can get to scoring a try for Munster'

An accidental referee, John Lacey has seen his stock rise all the way to the World Cup, says Brendan Fanning

John Lacey: 'It's so difficult to referee. You need guys working together. It may not have always been like that in the past'. Photo: Brian Gavin
John Lacey: 'It's so difficult to referee. You need guys working together. It may not have always been like that in the past'. Photo: Brian Gavin
John Lacey sin-binning Calum Clark at Twickenham last night

At 7.0pm in Twickenham on Friday, September 18 the opening ceremony to the 2015 World Cup will get under way. By that stage John Lacey, who has the honour of being part of the refereeing team for that opening game between England and Fiji, will be locked and loaded in business mode.

His day will have followed the same pattern as all his away games: roll out of a hotel bed around 8.30am; pass the first hour or two of the day on breakfast and the paperwork that follows him around in his day job with Munster Rugby's development office; then lunch, afternoon nap, and onto ref wavelength before heading to the stadium. Of his 33 matches last season all but three were on the road. It's a familiar drill.

Twickenham next month however will be a whole lot different. The 80,000 in the stadium is a regular feature, but the opening ceremony will involve multitudes and the television pictures will be delivered to an audience, potentially, of a few billion across 207 territories. While all that is unfolding you'll have this son of Tipperary town reflecting on the fast track that has taken him from being in the right place at the right time - Thomond Park in 2007 when the referee didn't show for a schools junior cup tie - to being part of a show with a global reach.

"I said I'd give it a go for two years and see how far I got," he says of the initial contract offered him by the IRFU. "And I got to the Pro12 in less than that. The five years after that I suppose have just been an upward curve and the goal has always been to get to the Rugby World Cup in 2015. It was only about that. So to get the phone call was exciting. It was relief. It was a goal achieved."

The goal-setting bit had come later. Initially there was the day when he was in the Munster office and the no-show opened the door for him to take that schools game. As a development officer with the province, he had done basic reffing courses to get on top of the laws - not to actually blow the whistle. The game went well though, and his picture appeared in the paper the next day alongside a flattering report. He was 33 at the time. That was the start of it.

The journey to this point has been, by design, quick. Rugby is the most difficult field sport to referee. No other code throws up so many options so fast. So if you can get a man who has just signed off playing at the high end of the sport, it's a good start.

Five successful AIL campaigns and a staggering eight Munster Senior Cup medals, all with Shannon, paints a colourful picture of John Lacey's career as a flying back-three player. It was enough to get him into the Munster set-up in the early days of professionalism, and six Heineken Cup games are a treasured memory for him. He had returned to his home club Clanwilliam by the time the refereeing door opened, and the transition has been smooth enough.

John Lacey quite likes the idea that he is the fastest ref on the international circuit. You can see it in his games, but it was confirmed in the heavy build-up to this World Cup when referee manager Joel Jutge brought all the officials to a training camp in Bordeaux in mid-summer.

"It went really well," Lacey says. "It was reffing under pressure so they put us through various running exercises and then had five different workshop areas where we had to run into a room after running for 15/20 minutes and make calls on video clips - which was excellent. So you ran in bollixed, as they'd say in Limerick, and you were hit with a video clip and had to make a decision instantly. There was hand-to-eye co-ordination and visual stuff and audio clips, so you're in after doing sprints over 200 metres, press play and it was a live tennis match, and the sound of balls being hit over and back in Wimbledon. And the first question was: how many shots were there in the rally?

"Some of the players don't appreciate the minimum physical standards required for refereeing. They're shocked when I tell them what we have to do on the 'yoyo' tests (endurance shuttle runs) and the speed tests. I'm not as fast as when I was playing but I'm the fastest guy (ref) in it. In modern sport no matter what it is, speed is a huge part of it. Rugby is no different, and they're all looking for athletes who can play rugby."

Evidently there's a bit more to it than being first at the scene of the crime. Figuring out whodunnit is a taller order. For Lacey, the hard cases to crack came with each step up the ladder. He launched himself into three games a week when he started, between schools and under 20, and quickly worked his way onto the AIL panel. Then came the professional game. His second Pro12 gig was a Welsh derby, Scarlets and Ospreys, which was typically heated.

"It's basically a Munster v Leinster job and I was only reffing 18 months at this stage, and Nigel Owens was my touch judge. I found that more nerve-wracking than anything else, the fact that he was doing it. I don't worry about the crowds or people or players, that doesn't bother me, but I was actually quite nervous with him. And the first half was a shitfight. And I turned around to him at half-time and said: 'Anything for me Nigel? And he says: 'The breakdown's a fucking mess, sort it fucking out!'

"You know what? I got a bit of a shock. We're friends now but my first reaction was: 'What an ignorant bollix', and me a young referee looking for a bit of direction. But he was right. And I went out and reffed the second half a lot better than I'd done the first. That was when it dawned on me that this wasn't going to be a cakewalk all the way to the top."

When he proved himself in the Pro12 he was handed the keys to the European car park. And if you remember the night he made his debut there you might recall it looked like he was having an out-of-body experience.

"Castres in Northampton, on the opening night of the European Cup, a Friday night (2010)," he recalls. "I felt I was running after shadows for the first 10 minutes. This was English and French sides with loads of physiciality. You get through it and look back and learn from it. I felt I was disconnected from the game at the start and was trying to chase my way into it a bit. The more experience you get in any walk of life stands to you.

"I asked the Munster sports psychologist about this recently. When you're moving up a level from Pro12 to Heineken Cup or whatever in the week of it you get more anxious - as a player or whatever. And it's the ones closest to you who suffer. You can be more aggressive towards them when you're narrowing your focus. They get the brunt of it sometimes. So you try and manage that and get into a routine, which I have now for away games."

His years on the playing side of the fence come in handy when reading explosive situations. And while he's got it in the neck for carding South Africans in high-profile games, the hottest battle by far came when he was running the line, in Cardiff three seasons ago, the night Wales emptied England to win the Championship.

"I've been in the Millennium a good few times full but I've never heard anything like the atmosphere that night," he says. "Great atmospheres there for Munster in the Heineken Cup but this was just another level altogether. I wouldn't say it was frightening because we were there to do a job, but fucking hell you could feel it on the back of your neck, the intensity that was behind you.

"(Graham) Rowntree was very unhappy after that match. I remember afterwards Craig Joubert said: 'I'm just going to go over and have a chat with the coaches.' The English guys were not looking the Mae West with the performance (of ref Steve Walsh) so I said: 'Craig you might be better off leaving that now.' 'Ah no,' he said. Fair enough I thought, if you know them that well. He strolls over and it went off! Rowntree gave it to him for five or 10 minutes, and he was only the assistant referee! Fairly heated stuff now."

So why expose yourself to that sort of grief? And week after week there is lots of it coming at referees, at all levels. "Because it's the closest buzz you can get to scoring a try for Munster in the Heineken Cup!" he says.

"I've been lucky enough to meet some great people around the world and make contacts for life. Referees are very individualistic people but Joel Jutge has made it more of a team, and hence these camps and going to Dubai together. So if I'm touch-judging for you, you could be doing it for me the next week so I'm going to help you as best I can. And that's really important because it's so difficult to referee. You need guys working together. It may not have always been like that in the past, from the stories I heard, but these 12 guys at the World Cup will be doing the best for each other. I really do believe that, and that's a compliment I suppose to the way Joel Jutge has gone about his business."

It's a compliment to Lacey as well that he has come so far so fast. Along with George Clancy he is the only non-full-time referee on the international circuit, which brings extra pressure to be seen to perform. He splits his working week between developing schools players for Munster, as well as reffing full-contact training sessions for the senior professional squad, and going wherever the IRFU send him on weekends.

By a distance this will be the most glamorous gig so far. Surviving the cut after the quarter-final, when the complement of officials is reduced, will involve knocking a more experienced man off the podium.

"We're all shooting for that," he says of the closing stages. "Just ref your games and enjoy it. I spent seven years getting there, and being involved in the opening ceremony is cool. But if I don't get the quarters . . ."

His expression suggests he'll cope either way. It's what has carved out a whole new career for him.

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