Sunday 22 September 2019

'It scares the living Jesus out of me when they cut that ball back' - What it's like to referee Joe Schmidt's Ireland

Referee Wayne Barnes during a Six Nations game between Ireland and Wales. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Referee Wayne Barnes during a Six Nations game between Ireland and Wales. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

As he puts it himself, Wayne Barnes specialises in the bribery and corruption business.

An extraordinary admission for a referee, given the scrutiny of every decision he makes in a fast-moving multi million Euro industry where there are only winners and losers.

"That’s not an after-dinner line," he says. "That is true!"

Sadly he does so as a barrister in a London-based legal firm involved mostly in corporate criminal investigations. There are a few yarns be could spin from that side of the fence but it would be a whole lot more interesting if he was using his rugby career as an illustration.

This, his fourth World Cup, will likely be Barnes’s last. And he’s confident it will work out well for players and fans. The area of greatest scrutiny currently is the attention given to anything approximating to a high tackle.

"What we’re not saying is that if you’re going in and trying to smack someone around the top of the chest and you get it slightly wrong and hit him straight in the head you’ve got a problem," he says.

"You’ve got to change your technique. But let’s be positive about this: the Six Nations just gone had one yellow card for foul play and we were still working under the same idea – that we want players to tackle lower.

"Players and coaches adapted so I’m really hopeful for the World Cup. We’ve all been going in with the teams – Nigel Owens with Wales, Andy Brace with Ireland, me with England – and it’s the same across the world. And we’re all saying the same thing: just lower your tackle height. We’re not trying to send players off for the sake of sending them off. We’re trying to protect players. And what we’re saying is to adapt your tackle technique slightly so you don’t end up with your shoulder going into someone’s head."

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Getting it right has career implications for referees as much as players. Barnes has long been an advocate of having the top 12 refs contracted to World Rugby rather than their individual unions, as currently is the case. He maintains the familiarity and frequency of that set-up would pay off across the board. Like teams who benefit from camp life, referees would be the same he says.

It’s worth remembering that when they get it wrong there often is a price to pay. Ask South African Craig Joubert, who – isolated in the moment without recourse to technology – got a call wrong in the last World Cup that allowed Australia save themselves with the last kick of the game against Scotland.

"It was a reminder that someone who’s been one of the great referees over the last decade, and a great friend of mine, and refereed the 2011 World Cup final – people forget that. All of a sudden he makes a decision, which is a really tough decision – he had to see whether that ball was deflected before it was caught by the Scottish player  or not – without the use of TMO. He wasn’t allowed to use it.

"And I don’t know about you but when I was watching it my gut instinct was - that’s a penalty. And it was only on replay that I realised: ‘Oh my goodness, it’s not!’ After a replay. So all of a sudden Craig Joubert’s kind of under pressure. He didn’t referee for the rest of the tournament. Players have that as well. Players who make mistakes are dropped. Referees who make mistakes are dropped. I think there’s this misconception: referees don’t get dropped or aren’t selected on form. If ever there was an example of referees being selected on form that’s it. Craig didn’t referee for the rest of that World Cup."

Barnes is well liked by lots of players because he treats them with respect. Joe Schmidt wouldn’t be one of this referee’s biggest fans but the coach hardly can fault him on his bedside manner, where he doesn’t talk to players as if he’s on a power trip. Interestingly, on the subject of power, he doesn’t fear for the increasing damage they are doing to each other. Or even referees.

He has had to ask Rob Kearney to warn him when Ireland are using a particular power play that sees the full back take a shortcut down a channel where Barnes might he floating.

"It scares the living Jesus out of me when Ireland cut that ball back inside and I’m standing in the road!" he says. 

"The amount of times he nearly ran over me to the point where I’d go and see him in the changing room beforehand and say: ‘Rob, now please just tell me what the name of that move is and when I hear it I will just run forward.’ And he now does that. He will come over and tap me on the shoulder and say: ‘Get out of the way!’

"So that scares the living hell out of me. But also the players are such great athletes nowadays. I’m lucky enough to train in the gym with some of them and you can see the physicality of them. They are pure athletes. It’s something to behold. Some of those collisions on a rugby field, they take your breath away.

"And yes it’s a physical, confrontational game but I think that’s what we love about it. We love those confrontations; we love those big collisions. We’ve just got to make sure that players are as safe as they can be and that’s what we’re trying to do with the high tackle and the framework and protecting players’ heads in particular. But we can’t take away that this is a collision sport and we should embrace that. I want my children to play the sport – my daughter and my son. But they have to know it’s a collision sport."

Wayne Barnes was in Dublin as part of Emirates partnership with RWC.

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