Monday 10 December 2018

Sinead Kissane: Full-time professional referees finally reaching level playing field with players

For referees, every match is an away fixtures,’ says Sean Gallagher Photo: Sportsfile
For referees, every match is an away fixtures,’ says Sean Gallagher Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Referee Sean Gallagher didn't hesitate to find the applicable words as he gave his bullet-point explanation to Munster's Sammy Arnold for sending him off for a tackle on Christian Leali'ifano in the 58th minute of the Guinness Pro14 game with Ulster on New Year's Day.

"You lunged into him.

"It's high.

"It's with force.

"It made contact to the head.

"It's a red card," Gallagher informed the Munster centre.

Arnold's reaction? He just turned and walked away without so much as a 'but sir?'. After the game, Munster head coach Johann van Graan conceded that Gallagher was left "with no other choice" than to give Arnold a red card for which the centre was also given a three-week suspension at a disciplinary hearing two days later.

"We look at things in a very matter-of-fact way as referees," Gallagher says in the same considered tone he uses when he officiates.

"In the week leading up to the game we just prepare for the big moments, the game-changers. The most important thing when we go out to referee is that we get the decisions in those big moments right, the ones that are game-changing."

A game-changer in trying to improve the standard of refereeing was the announcement three months ago of the IRFU's decision to give professional contracts to seven referees (Gallagher, 2017 Referee of the Year Joy Neville, George Clancy, John Lacey, Frank Murphy, Andrew Brace and David Wilkinson) in a high-performance team led by ex-ref Dudley Phillips.

Until this season, these referees had to work in their own jobs as well as work as match officials at the weekend. But this is the first season they are full-time with the stakeholders properly recognising the need for referees to consistently match the levels of professionalism shown by teams and players. "Now we're on a level playing field with the players," Gallagher points out. "We've the strength and conditioning available to us, we've got the nutrition and the coaching."

accident Gallagher, 28, started refereeing at the age of 15. Like most things which appear like they were always meant to be, Gallagher became a referee by accident.

When a ref didn't turn up at his club, Navan RFC, because his car broke down one Saturday afternoon, Gallagher was asked to step in and fill the void.

Eight years later, he refereed his first professional game in the Pro12 between Zebre and Edinburgh in 2013. Two years later, he gave up his job as an English and History secondary school teacher in Greystones, Co Wicklow to take over as the IRFU Referee Development Officer with Connacht before becoming a full-time referee this season.

Because the job of a referee generally involves not refereeing teams from their home, travelling is routine in the life of a ref. Gallagher had two home Pro14 games over Christmas and is an assistant ref for Munster v Connacht at Thomond Park tonight but this weekend will likely be his last weekend at home until the summer.

"For referees every match is an away fixture. I would spend pretty much three days a week every week out of the country. I'll probably spend every weekend until, probably, May out of the country," Gallagher adds.

Now that Gallagher and co are full-time refs, the time they can spend on reviewing and preparing for matches has increased dramatically.

The Monday after a game involves Gallagher watching the game back a few times, filling in an online match report and discussing it with the performance reviewer and also reviewing the game with his IRFU coach. The following day, all seven IRFU refs have a group meeting. "We would go through everything, not just from our own games, but from all the other games and just see what decisions went well, what decisions need improvement, where we might be going wrong and where we might be going well," Gallagher says.

The rest of the week is spent preparing for the next game including discussions with the match officials they will work with the following weekend.

"We'd look at various trends in the game, we'd look back at the team in previous matches. And then we'd go through every single thing in terms of breakdown, scrum, offside, foul play, anything that might be thrown at us for the weekend," he explains. "We try to prepare everything but the main thing is that we go through as many eventualities as possible so that we're as prepared as we can be for every scenario that happens."

Most of us don't have to do our job knowing people on TV and in the stadium are intently listening to everything we say but the ref mic has been one of the most innovative features of rugby and leaves other pro sports, which don't use them, look prehistoric by comparison. Rugby refs are mic'd up for games whether they are televised or not. "We're so used to being mic'd up with everybody being able to hear everything that we say. I think it makes us better communicators when we know that everybody is hearing what we say," Gallagher says.

Maybe it's also his former job as a teacher but Gallagher's easy manner of communication is a valuable asset. Unlike some of his colleagues like Nigel Owens, Gallagher isn't on social media (not because he's a ref, he says) which immediately lessens the access to the public's reaction to his performance.

Qualities Not everyone agreed with his decision to send off Arnold. But not everyone would put themselves in that position to make the big call.

"I'm fortunate enough that I've got the qualities and the thick skin that's required. I never take it personally, it's all part of the game," Gallagher says. in general about any negativity. "One of the big challenges for referees is that we're expected to get everything right all of the time and that's definitely what we strive towards. Sometimes referees get things wrong, sometimes players get things wrong. And when you step back, every referee should be able to take constructive criticism once it comes through the right channels".

These days teams analyse referees as much as their opponents. At least now, as full-time refs, Gallagher and co can try and make a career out of making the right calls.

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