Monday 20 November 2017

Tony Ward: Rolland our greatest at hardest art

Alain Rolland is to take charge of the inter-provincial clash between Leinster and Munster at the Aviva Stadium
Alain Rolland is to take charge of the inter-provincial clash between Leinster and Munster at the Aviva Stadium
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Exactly what possesses anyone to want to referee is beyond me and no, I'm not just talking rugby here. In fact, of all the sporting codes, rugby union is probably the most enticing, given its long-established built-in respect for those who choose the officiating path.

Not for a minute am I suggesting it is an easy code to referee. In fact quite the opposite, given the myriad technical offences relative to say soccer, Gaelic football or hurling.

I am slow to criticise referees for the simple reason that I believe theirs to be a thankless task.

I also believe that those who make it to the very top are beyond reproach when it comes to impartiality. They may have their individual foibles and personality quirks but those who get to the highest echelon do so on merit.

It does not mean they are beyond critical analysis. As with players, form varies and so it is right they should be – and increasingly are – assessed accordingly. If performance dips, then they too should get the axe, but here too form is temporary, class permanent.

FEEDBACK

In Auckland a fortnight ago, Romain Poite, a top-class official, made a howler (wrongly sending Bismarck du Plessis to the bin) when choosing to back his gut instinct rather than feedback from the TMO.

Replays had suggested no evidence of wrongdoing by the Springbok hooker. The ramifications were massive, with that one decision changing the course of the game and ultimately its outcome.

Alain Rolland too has had his horror moments. Think back to the World Cup semi-final in 2011 and Sam Warburton's dismissal for a dangerous tackle and you've got the drift.

Our greatest ever referee has recently announced his intention to retire at the end of the season.

We have had so many top-notch rugby whistlers down through the years. From my playing time, Kevin Kelleher, John West, Dave Burnett, Owen Doyle, Stephen Hilditch, Dave McHugh, Donal Courtney and Alan Lewis have made it to the very top of their trade.

Each one has contributed so much in his own way, but when it comes to the complete package, helped by his ability to speak fluent French, Rolland has proved the refereeing equivalent of Brian O'Driscoll.

The fact they are both Blackrock College men is, I suggest, more than just coincidence. The Rock Road school still leads the way when setting the standard for all others to follow.

Although there is the best part of a decade between us in age, we linked up at half-back together for Leinster in our playing time. Rolland's John Robbie/John Moloney-type ability to read a game was evident from the minute he stepped into the senior representative arena.

Rolland was, in every respect, an out-half's scrum-half – just as he has proved a player's referee.

The fact that he went on to represent Ireland in the No 9 shirt three times between 1990 and 1995 gave him a huge advantage in terms of 'street cred' with players – and that matters.

There is another aspect to Rolland the referee that has always made him special as a game manager – he never plays to the camera or gallery.

If anything, he could be accused of being overly concentrated and stern in the extreme in his relationship with players.

That said, he is a brilliant communicator – prepared to listen to players, but only on his terms for the sake of the game.

I remember well, when he took up the whistle, talking with another great Blackrock mentor Joe McDonnell in advance of a vital league match between St Gerard's and St Andrew's.

And, despite Rollers' rawness, his affinity with underage players in interpretation of the law was striking from the get go. He always had the ability to communicate decisions by way of gesticulation, clearly and unambiguously.

He is, as IRFU director of referees Owen Doyle so rightly suggests, "the best referee of the modern era" but, as the ultimate role model in his homeland, I would stretch it much further back than that.

Having refereed one World Cup final (2007) and two Heineken Cup finals in a refereeing career already spanning 65 Tests, he is quite simply our best ever. And again I leave it to his mentor Doyle to bestow the finest compliment of all when saying "Alain regards every match in the same way."

He is the real deal in terms of preparation and attention to detail but more than anything he will always be remembered as the consummate player's referee.

I cannot think of a greater legacy. Between now and the end of the season make a point of watching him in action because what you are witnessing is rugby greatness from our greatest ever exponent of that most difficult of arts.

Irish Independent

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