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Owen Doyle: Referees damned if they do, damned if they don’t on red cards

Three finals is a huge achievement for Barnes and he is standing the test of time

Last week we learned that World Rugby has rejected the introduction of the 20-minute red card replacement. Their own law review group had recommended it, but the World Rugby council did not agree on grounds of player welfare; that represents a serious enough internal rift, and we can suspect that this saga is not over.

There is also an unwelcome growing polarisation on this issue between the two hemispheres, extending now to judicial sanctions. What would have been considered “redder than red” in the north has been thrown out by the learned men on the bench in the South.

It leaves the referees in an enormous bind, damned if they do, and damned if they do not – it is absolutely not good enough. Frenchman Joel Jutge is doing a fine job of managing the referees, but, otherwise, who the hell is in charge?

Let’s change tack.


“Congrats to the big dog @WayneBarnesRef for his third final. Huge achievement. A great weekend for @EnglandRugby refs. Massively proud to be heading to Marseilles for the @ChallengeCup final.”

So tweeted Luke Pearce on the announcement that Wayne Barnes and his good self (the little dog, no doubt) will referee the two showcase European finals. Some will find his words hilarious, while others will see them as excruciatingly cringeworthy. But, hang on a second, that's not really the issue. The key point, leaving canines to one side, is that Pearce is correct.

These can be tremendously hard matches in terms of referee degree of difficulty, the equal, and more, of some Six Nations fixtures. We must wish them all the best, and that neither match is shrouded in controversy. They will be under intense pressure to deliver top-notch performances and they will have every aspect of key decisions parsed and analysed – that is the inevitable reality of the pro game.

A particular word for Barnes – three finals is indeed a huge achievement and he is really standing the test of time. The appointments were made by the EPCR selectors, headed up by European referee boss, former international Tony Spreadbury who was, until recently, in charge of English match officials.

Hard to believe, but when these were released one of the first comments which popped into my message box ventured that Spreadbury was displaying jingoistic qualities of a high order. That comment, of course, is nothing but top-grade horse manure, sprinkled liberally with bitter green envy. Such matches must be appointed on the basis of one thing, and one thing alone – merit.

The three top referees in Europe, and probably the world, at the moment, are Barnes, Pearce and Mathieu Raynal (who could not be considered because of the involvement of French teams). After those guys, there is quite a gap to the next group, and an actual chasm to those who ply their trade in the URC.

How strange it is that the best, newest hope in the system is a Georgian, Nika Amashukeli. He is coached by Dave McHugh, who the IRFU found was surplus to their needs

In fact, “Spreaders” and his selectors found themselves between a rock and a hard place, confronted by Hobson’s choice, so no choice at all. He will have mopped his brow in relief that the Champions Cup final was not a French club versus an English club. What then, what indeed? The options would have been so limited that they would have barely existed and would a phone call to the southern hemisphere have come up for discussion?

Maybe, maybe not, but it is a dire state of affairs that the only possibility for the Champions Cup final was an English referee. Of course, absolutely full credit to them, and to their system, but it says sweet nothing about what several other unions are doing in terms of their referee programmes. Irishmen Andrew Brace and Frank Murphy had opportunities in the Challenge semis to put their best foot forward and maybe get into the frame for the final of that competition, but that did not happen.

When Pearce runs out in the Stade Velodrome, so too will Brace and Murphy as his assistants. A generous gesture by Spreadbury, but surely any referee would prefer to have colleagues with whom he is accustomed to working, fellow countrymen – such as Karl Dickson and Paul Dix – would have been the anticipated choices. Barnes, of course, will have his own full team with him and rightly so, and he also would have been right to baulk had a similar arrangement been suggested for Saturday's main event.

Scotland, after many false starts, have only Mike Adamson to show for years of sweat and toil, and nobody can claim that he's even on the coat tails of the English in terms of performance; we are still awaiting the next Jim Fleming, who hung up his whistle over two decades ago. Wales, since the departure of Nigel Owens, have found that the cupboard is distinctly bare now that he is gone. Italy have a couple somewhere way down the pipeline, and it's far too early to say whether or not they will have the temperament to survive in the hot heat of European knockout rugby.

How strange it is that the best, newest hope in the system is a Georgian, Nika Amashukeli. He is coached by Dave McHugh, who the IRFU found was surplus to their needs about five years ago. That decision certainly doesn't look any better now than it did then.

This column has previously called for much better terms for referees. Signed up by their own union the contract depends on them being utilised by the URC, where former Scottish referee manager, Tappe Henning, is now running things. When the URC finds them no longer up to scratch they will lose their union job. Effectively they are hired by one company and let go by another.

In any case, on reaching mid-40s age wise, it will be the scrap heap, therefore pay and conditions must be to the forefront of every referee’s mind. They need a representative body to get things right. Hopefully not, but maybe it’ll have to be another case of “Dear Minister”.

Very seriously, though, the IRFU should be determined to have one of the best referee deals on the planet – a direction which needs a very strong will. But that’s not about the place at the moment, what a crying shame.

Owen Doyle

Owen Doyle

Owen Doyle, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a former Test referee and former director of referees at the Irish Rugby Football Union