Ed Morrison believes the referee has a duty to protect players
Referee Appointments Administrator says safety of players is main concern
New Zealand’s Sam Cane escaped punishment for his tackle on Robbie Henshaw which ended the Leinster centre’s involvement in the recent Autumn International at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/ Inpho
Former referee Ed Morrison, who officiated at the 1995 World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. Photograph: Getty Images
Malakai Fekitoa was suspended for one week for his high tackle on Simon Zebo that only drew a yellow card in during the Autumn International. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The Ed Morrison interview begins like most rugby conversations nowadays: the wonderful All Blacks versus Ireland mini-series flows into deep concerns because these violent delights having violent ends. Talk of adjudicating combat sports guides us into the most unfulfilling parish a person can dwell nowadays; Morrison and his lot. The referees.
Michael Cheika spent most of his press conference last Saturday evening refusing to talk about Jerome Garces. Cheika couldn’t analyse the game either because that would mean talking about Garces, and he didn’t want “to get in any strife.”
“It’s something I will be dealing with Alain Rolland. and see if we can get something out of it. But I doubt it.”
There it was. Four words that gifted every journalist in the room a clear line of inquiry. “Everyone saw it out there, felt it . . .” Any chance, Cheika was pressed, of getting a useful outcome from the Rolland meeting? “No, not really. We have had meetings with Alain Rolland before . . . Maybe we’ve just got to wear it.”
In some form or other coaches apply pressure on the officials. That’s just professional, high stakes sport.
Morrison refereed possibly the most pressurised environment in rugby’s history: The Mandela Match, South Africa versus New Zealand, the 1995 World Cup final in Ellis Park. So he has seen things. Nowadays he works to improve the Guinness Pro12 officiating. The wonder is how November’s test window helped or hindered such a process, or the game in general.
Gavin Cummiskey: We find ourselves in a very interesting time in the relationship between coaches and officials, how do you see your role in that? Ed Morrison: “My role with the Pro12 is very different from the role I had in England, to be honest with you. My official title with the Pro12 is appointments administrator. So, basically, I’m responsible for the appointment of the referees. I have a very close working relationship with the four referee managers – including Dave McHugh (Ireland).
“I think the Pro12 is a much more intense competition now, and the downside to that is it places much more emphasis on the officiating. That’s really where we are coming from in terms of this generation. Now, where is the next generation of referees coming from?”
The retired player? “Well, it could be . . .”
Not necessarily the retired professional player. “Refereeing is quite an interesting business now, because what it has done is attract a lot of people who have seen the physicality of the game and said ‘Not for me’ but I’d like to be involved in some way or other. Refereeing is an opportunity for them.
“I’m a big believer that you don’t close any doors and then you look for any gender, any colour, any race, it don’t worry where they come from as long as they got the ability, the mindset and the strength of mind, really, to cope with the role. The reality is it does help when a top-class player wants to come into officiating. It sends out a strong message to players coming to the end of their career or who pick up a nasty injury.
“I came into refereeing because injuries stopped me playing. I did some coaching but I had no control once the game started on the Saturday. There are demands on officials but the demands on coaches at the top end are phenomenal.”
If a player plays poorly he gets dropped, if a team performs badly the coach loses his job, yet in November the match referees were set before the games started [Jaco Peyper is refereeing England v Australia today], is there a rating scheme in the Pro12 from week-to-week? “Yes. I never talk about demoting people because you can’t go into the public domain and say that. It’s not the right thing to do. But if you look at appointments there are some names you have not seen for a few weeks. There is a reason behind that. They know the reason, their manager knows the reason and I know the reason.
“The Pro12 is different from England and France because there is talk of neutrality. We do that where possible but we also make sure the individual we select has the wherewithal to referee that game.
“The reality is lots of people have good games and no one talks about them, correctly so in my opinion, some just have fair games while others have train crashes – they do get spoken about. I have to go in and save that individual, by finding out why he crashed and what we can do to make sure he doesn’t crash again. Sometimes you are successful in that, sometimes not. When we are not successful we have to accept that too.
“The best referees in the world know they made a mistake, they park it, forget it, move on to the next decision. The ones who are not that good they take that poor decision with them.”
What about teams of officials so there is a familiarity between the touch judges and Television Match Official week to week, game-to-game? Is that possible? “I would [advocate that] to a great degree. One of the problems we’ve got – this is a personal view – is the professional game needs to be refereed by professional referees. I am firm of that view, always have been, always will be.”
How far are we off that? “A million miles, I would suggest, a million miles. However, people are beginning to talk about it. The commitment of the guys who have real jobs and take this on as well is unbelievable. The public have no comprehension of the effort they put in.
“Referees should be mirroring players, like resting on Friday, not working, getting stressed out and then getting in your car to drive 100 miles to ref a professional game. It don’t make sense.
“Now there is the financial side of the game, it costs money. I haven’t got a clue how much referees are paid now but I know when I was in the RFU four years ago they weren’t very well paid.”
Coaches – every week – criticise referees for a lack of consistency. How do you address that? “I’ll answer by asking you a question: of all the rugby you watch is every game similar?”
No, they change. “Teams play differently?”
Of course, yeah. “If you take that on, okay, I refereed these teams last week and they played this way, but these teams will play differently. Now a knock-on is a knock-on in both games but some games are easier to referee than others. All referees are looking for consistency. It’s a very complex game and the referee has to make a split second decision. I could show you a clip right now, switch it off and then say: give me your answer. I’d love to do that to the media.”
We’d struggle. “Seriously, I’d love to do it. The guys who are the best at what they do they referee off instinct. Take Nigel. He’s been refereeing over 30 years so when he sees something he doesn’t think about it, it just happens. It takes time to adjust to that speed.”
What about the World Rugby edict on November 11th instructing referees to be strict about high tackles. Did you interpret it as heaping enormous pressure on officials? “I was at the World Rugby camp on October 31st to November 2nd when Alain Rolland gave very, very clear messages to the referees. Rollers gave clear direction and guidelines about what is not acceptable.
“If you go through the history of the game you can always find moments when an issue becomes the number one issue from the powers that be. At the moment it is concussion and head injuries.
“Imagine in that game against the Blacks, God forbid, if Robbie Henshaw didn’t stand up what damage could that do for our game. So it is perception and image. My two grandsons just started playing mini-rugby for my club. My daughter really had to ask questions of herself, if she should allow them do this. Now it is all tag rugby at the moment but the moment one of them gets a head bang the plug is going to come out. That’s where our game is now, especially considering the competition for recreational sport around us.”
Okay, the Same Cane hit on Henshaw, from your perspective was that the correct on-field decision – a high tackle, penalty – and subsequently the correct off-field outcome (no suspension)? “I can only make a judgment on what I see. That was a dangerous tackle. What the judge and jury saw, I don’t know. I was not part of that process.
“I always say to referees you have to act on what is best for the game. You go with your instinct on the field. I’m sure the hearing went through freeze frames and replays but I am seeing a bloke lead with his shoulder. To me there is one outcome.
“A referee has a duty to protect players. Now if you tackle me fair and hit me hard and take the wind out of me not a problem, that’s the physicality of the exchanges.”
World Rugby’s message to referees on November 11th was to be “especially vigilant” in an attempt to “eliminate dangers or reckless” contact, what message does the Cane exoneration send to referees and parents? “In fairness the message was clear to the referees. I was there . . .”
What about the message that goes out to the public when Same Cane gets no suspension and Malakai Fekitoa’s hit on Simon Zebo does not even get referred to the TMO? “On Tuesday last week I sent out the same message to every referee in the Pro12. And showed clips of what is acceptable and what is not. I can only make a judgment on the on-field stuff. How it is dealt with once a player goes or doesn’t go I cannot comment because I am not privy to the information they have got. But, for me, watching from home it didn’t make good TV.
“I think the game is cleaner than it has ever been. Apart from one aspect: the tackle issue. Because when two people are coming together that quickly there is always going to be the possibility of an accident. If I have got the ball and you want to tackle me and you don’t use your arms you run a risk in my opinion.”
Fekitoa leapt through the air and swung his forearm into the chin of Zebo and got a yellow card and one-week suspension. What was your opinion of that when it happened and the subsequent outcome?
“The outcome I cannot comment on because I don’t have the information. Did I think it was a serious act of foul play? Yes I did.”
It was deemed reckless not intentional? “This word ‘intentional’ keeps coming up.”
There is intent when you tackle on a rugby pitch, yeah? “When you hit someone you’ve got to accept the risk you take. Did that player want to take his head off, no he didn’t. He’s a brilliant player and I hear stories that he is a brilliant guy as well but on that occasion, in my opinion, he got it wrong.
“We all live in a world where if we do something wrong we got to take the rap.”
Okay then, the world saw what happened; knowing all that, how do you communicate to Pro12 referees? “Did you see the incident down in Scarlets on Saturday?”
Barry Daly’s red card? Yeah. “That’s a clear red card. Clear red card. What that is based on is: yes, he took him out in the air. The second thing, and this is the real point of this, where did he land?”
His head/neck. [Morrison nods in agreement].
So the player not in possession has a duty of care to the player with the ball. “Thank you, yes. That player made a mistake, he was very concerned about the player on the ground, but I thought the referee Seán Gallagher got the decision spot-on. It follows the edict we sent to the clubs.”
How do you take the high hit out of the game and how do the referees contribute? “In my day if I had the ball and I ducked and was high tackled the referee was quite lenient but now the guidelines, whether I am going down or up you are running a risk.”
So we can expect red cards in the Pro12 if players replicate the Cane and Fekitoa hits? “I expect that to be looked at that very seriously.”
Do we expect to see red cards? “Well, we saw one last week.”
That was a tackle in the air. “Then we saw one in Glasgow for a charge to the head.”
Because you have to give your young referees a clear message? “Listen, I speak to Nigel [Owens] every week and we talk about the huge responsibility that is on the referees and most of them take that very seriously. The annoying thing is we are talking about a couple of incidents over how many games? However, the profile of that game [Ireland versus New Zealand], it was beamed all around the world. My daughter phoned me up straightaway: My God, how is that allowed to happen? The reality is I don’t know.
“No referee wants to send someone off. All of them know, because it was made quite clear to them by Rollers, if this, this or this happens and you see it and deem it to be factual then you deal with it, this way.”
Rolland had to make a big decision in the 2011 World Cup semi-final when he went letter of the law to red card Sam Warburton. “Shall I tell you a story about that?”
Please do. “When that happened my phone rang at home. It was Ian Robertson [the Scottish journalist/commentator] who was in the stadium – he said: what’s going to happen here?
“He’s going to go.” – “You’re joking.” – “No I am not.”
That became a yellow card offence the next time it happened. “The guidelines are a lot clearer now. They are clearer about taking people out in the air. The guidelines are clearer when you tip someone over and if that player goes on his head or his neck it is a straight forward red.”
Okay. Let’s talk about the importance of TMOs. Are they at every Pro12 game yet? “No, 90 per cent. People underestimate the importance of it. Because the game has to be aware of the image it portrays. I played in the 1970s, when going over [from Bristol] to Wales every week and getting kicked to **** was normal.
“I showed a clip recently of when Llanelli beat the All Blacks in ’72. I said after five minutes, notice anything? They looked at me as if I was from Mars. Is anybody on the floor? No. Why? One bloke looked up and said ‘Because they would have got kicked to **** if they were.’
“The game was self policed in those days. It ain’t self policed anymore.”
Because it would be too dangerous. “Absolutely. You know the physicality of these people. The game is policed on the field better now and, equally important, it is policed off the field better.”
Policed off the field better? A one-week suspension for two high hits – Cane and Fekitoa – that would be red card offences in the Pro 12. “One of the interesting things about justice is you want to see it being delivered. Now in those cases a lot of people might say justice wasn’t delivered but the difference is I don’t know the full facts so I am loath to criticise the judicial process.
“Look at the Elliot Daly one – a lovely person, from what Wasps people say about him – he made an error and is paying the price for that.”
Yeah, he got a three-week suspension. “Will he do it again? I don’t think he will.”
Is there a way of changing the tackle rules? This below the nipple line idea, I don’t know how you police that. “Nor me. I don’t know the answer to that.”
Is this rugby’s big challenge now? “Safety is the big challenge because if mothers don’t allow their sons to play where are we going to be in 20 years?”