Owen Doyle: Referees will be under more scrutiny than ever at this World Cup

The 12 referees have gone through a long and arduous selection process

Let’s spare a thought for the 21st team travelling to Japan – the match officials.

For the last four years, exactly the same as the players, these will have been assiduously preparing for this moment. Under the guidance of World Rugby's elite referee manager, Alain Rolland, they will have worked at all aspects of their game – mental strength, fitness, consistency and teamwork to mention a few.

They have had frequent meetings and they have also travelled to Japan in the early summer to start to get a feel for the environment.

No stone has been left unturned.


Their fitness is monitored through GPS (again, just like a player) and there has been serious fitness testing over the four years and prior to departure.

It’s a curious paradox that while it will be a competitive environment – particularly as the knock-out stages arrive – these guys must and will work together in teams to produce top-class referee performances across all the matches.

They will never have been under more scrutiny and analysis than in this World Cup, and the pressures on officials will be immense. The other side of that coin is that they have never been better prepared.

All of the referees are full-time and contracted to their union, which subcontracts them to World Rugby for the duration of the tournament. As such will have signed up to WR’s participation agreement (including behaviour, social media use etc . . .)

A total of 12 referees will travel (backed up by a team of seven assistants and four television match officials). These have gone through a long and arduous selection process which started immediately after the 2015 World Cup, and it’s fair to say that some who expected to be on the plane are not travelling.

Robust process

I believe that the selection process is robust, fair and has come up with a very good team. We can expect high-level performances. Will there be errors? Of course there will – and players will drop scoring passes too!

But the referees’ mistakes, given that they have recourse to their television match official, should not perhaps be quite as blatant.

So, how did they get on the plane? For the last four years all referees in all tournaments across professional rugby are subject to a performance review in the vast majority of their matches. This is designed to be as objective as possible.

Utilising a specifically designed web-based system, the referee must review his match fully and write an open and honest appraisal of his performance – essentially backed up by video clips, so it’s difficult to avoid honesty. The reviewer completes the same process, and these should pretty much mirror each other. If not, then it’s a question for the referee to argue his corner, or to accept that the reviewer is making valid points.

In addition to this, the team coaches can give their input with objective comments, again backed up fully by video clips. The referee, in conjunction with the tournament referee manager, must respond to the coaches. It is a two-way process.

Most referees and coaches have bought into the system and it really assists the purpose in building up a performance profile of each referee over each season. This performance profile is the essential ingredient in measuring the level and consistency of each elite referee. It becomes, essentially, his DNA.

It’s fair to say that some referees do not like criticism – no matter how accurate or constructive it may be. These ones will not be in Japan.

Rugby is now totally results-driven and some coaches, whose jobs are on the line, can (understandably) be more than frustrated with a referee who has had a bad day at the office. In this case, to put it politely, the input may not be particularly constructive.

Union contract

The selection process starts with a referee getting his first contract from his union. At this point he will be on the fringe of, or have just started refereeing in, the Pro14, the English Premiership and the French Top 14. Selection for matches in these competitions is made by each tournament’s referee manager.

These three referee managers then form a higher group under the auspices of Joel Jutge, who is responsible for European appointments. So, bit by bit, a high-potential referee climbs the ladder towards international test recognition. Some move no further than, say, Pro14, and others find their ceiling at European level. All are needed.

This system of progression and performance is replicated in the southern hemisphere under the capable guidance of former test referee Lyndon Bray who is the Sanzar game manager.

It is then down to Rolland, Jutge, Bray and former international coach Nick Mallett (a progressive inclusion), under the chairmanship of WR council member Anthony Buchanan, to appoint referees to international matches. And, finally, to the rarefied atmosphere of selecting into that final top 12 in the World and a ticket to Japan.

So, who has made it?

First, one or two familiar faces who have not: Glen Jackson (New Zealand) who – in player parlance – was cut from the group after the Six Nations, and John Lacey (Ireland) cut prior to the Six Nations. This meant that Ireland, for the first time, did not have a referee selected to either the Six Nations or to the World Cup but it shows that there is no room for sentiment. Selection is robust and performance based.

The 12 travelling referees are (Ireland’s group matches in brackets):

France – Jerome Garces (v Russia), Romain Poite, Mathieu Raynal and Pascale Gauzere

England – Wayne Barnes (v Scotland) and Luke Pearce

Wales – Nigel Owens

South Africa – Jaco Peyper

New Zealand – Ben O'Keefe and Paul Williams

Australia – Angus Gardner (v Japan) and Nic Berry (v Samoa)

We wish them the very best.

Owen Doyle is a former test referee and former director of referees with the IRFU. He will be writing for The Irish Times throughout the Rugby World Cup