Why bowing out of refereeing is a mixed blessing for Alain Rolland

It’s all change for top referee Alain Rolland but the former player knows a thing or two about transitions

Alain Rolland refereesa  match between South Africa and Australia.  Photograph:  David Rogers/Getty Images

Alain Rolland refereesa match between South Africa and Australia. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images


From the age of eight his parents would hang the unaccompanied minor Aer Lingus tag around his neck and usher him onto the aircraft bound for the Côte d’Azur. There was no complaint.

Just 15 kilometres from St Tropez, where his grandparents lived, Alain Rolland’s summers were charmed by the Mediterranean and the monthly trip to Antibes, where his grandfather worked as a chef in one of the resort’s hotels. Until the age of 16, his holidays were on the Riviera. His French father saw to that. Rolland has always been a traveller and since those summers he has never stopped travelling. But this year he will.

Here he is in a tracksuit with workout face and a drink bottle. Being one of the highest regarded referees in the world brings its own demands and not just in the gym. When Rolland added up the weekends he had been out of the country on Heineken Cup, Pro 12 and Test match duty it was more than half of last year.

With four children, Mark, Clodagh, Natasha and Amy, ranging in age from 14 to five and a new career in the pipeline, the rugby high life and the adrenaline rush of a World Cup final in 2007 as well as a two-month break last summer where he saw his children, or rather saw what he was missing, brought other live imperatives into focus.

“It’s just hectic at the weekends. I was out of the country 26 weekends last season,” he says. “I was between jobs last summer and in New Zealand for the month of June and when I got back I had July and August down in the mobile with the family. For the first time in 25 years I had that time. That was a part of my life, to be honest, that I was missing.

“The after-school activities and the amount of time [wife] Lisa has to spend driving around in the car. There’s that side of it and I wanted to make a decision on my time, quit at the top rather than doing two or three seasons where everyone might be saying he should have packed it in by now. I made the decision and everyone was surprised, which was in effect what I wanted.

“So you’d the family, the IRB and setting my own company, which will be training and consultancy, Alain Rolland Refereeing and Business and Consultancy.”

Part two is to independently work with countries or teams on refereeing and after 25 years in financial services, on the business side too as well as working with managers or assistants. In a game of margins, he hopes his skills will be sought.

“It hasn’t been done before,” he says.

Rolland will be 48 in August but looks younger. No drinking or smoking and a daily training regime, which he will maintain, will see him through this year’s Six Nations Championship, his last.

He realises it is a time of flux in his life and also evolution in rugby with the TMO (third match official) becoming more prominent and the players’ physiques changing the game irrevocably. Although referees maybe seen as conservative by nature, the former Irish scrumhalf is not averse to seeking change in the way the games is run, or organised.

“New technology has a big part. There is no doubt,” he says. “The game itself has changed dramatically. Look at the size of the players and the collisions compared to when I played. I’m only out of the game playing 12 or 13 years ago. But it’s unrecognisable to what it was.

“Yeah, cameras are part of it as well,” he says. “The first time that Sky ever covered a match in Ireland was a game involving Blackrock. It was mid-90s. That was the start of it. What I realised even then was the number of cameras and the trucks when we arrived up to Stradbrook. It was the start of something.”

It was the birth of the couch potato referee; the guy at home watching the replays and the camera angles and holding an opinion. We all did it, still do. There are now more cameras than ever and the referees come under more scrutiny that they have ever done. Theirs is a world where the microcosm of the ruck or the scrum is globalised and slowed down and inflated. Did Ian Evans deliberately stamp on Mike McCarthy in the Ospreys match against Leinster? Was Nathan White’s slip of the boot across Brad Barritt’s face a dangerous flirtation with maiming the Saracens player? Everyone has become and expert.

There’s Sky Cart, Spider Cam, Ref Cam, super-slow motion cameras, HD and high-motion cameras that provides replays of up to 1,000 frames per second, a perspective not possible with standard equipment. Those cameras were originally developed in the car industry for filming crash-test dummies.

“Yes,” says Rolland, agreeing everything is now seen by everybody. “But you are going into that with your eyes open. It’s not going to change any decision you make. You have slow motions and different angles. The referee has a spilt second. He doesn’t have super slow mo. That’s what people do. They look at super slow mo and say ‘Ahhhh, there was something there’. That’s just the way it has gone.

“You can be 100 per cent correct but every single decision I make people will have an issue with it. Because it’s against their team . . . but that’s what we do. I copped a lot of flack a few weeks ago up in Ulster from Munster supporters because of my lack of use of technology. We are there to use the technology and when we don’t we are given out to for not using it. Just because we don’t use the technology to back up what we’ve already seen, we cop flack for it. But that’s their opinion. It doesn’t change anything we do.”

He believes the most contentious area is still the scrum but that the laws deserve more discussion, especially in what the TMO can bring and how it can be used beyond the current parameters, even involving the coaches and captains. He’s not averse to airing ideas of radical change to the game or introduce concepts from other sports such as the “challenge” that has been successfully used in tennis.

Professional tennis players have three challenges in each set where they can ask for HawkEye, a computer system, to decide if a disputed ball is in or out. If the player is correct they keep their challenge and if wrong they lose one. Both players go back to three challenges each in the following set with a further adjustment for tiebreaks.

“I think the whole TMO needs to be looked at. It’s in trial period now. They are giving it to the end of season and see what adjustments they will make,” says Rolland.

“I think a challenge the way it should be looked at. Referees will continue to make a decision on a try. Yes, or no. That remit won’t change but all the other stuff in the lead-up could be down to whether a coach or captain wants to check something.

“Like tennis you have one, maybe two challenges a half and if you are correct with your query you get to keep your challenge to the end of the half and if you are incorrect you lose the challenge. I think it would take away a certain amount of pressure from the officials because they could then concentrate on doing the try and the grounding scenario and the other queries could be dealt with the team themselves.

“There are pros and cons. It’s like anything. You see in tennis players challenging just because they have one to use up. You don’t want to go that route either. I think it’s definitely worth a discussion.”

Six Nations business rolled up weeks before now. A trip to Dubai to meet with the championship officials was no junket but a pragmatic solution to Australian and Kiwi referees having to travel over, go home and come back again for their matches.

There is a tight rein kept on the elite group and they undergo endless reassessment. After every match Rolland and others such as John Lacy are reviewed by others, such as the IRFU’s Owen Doyle.

Rolland’s view is that teams often decide how the match is refereed, not the referees themselves. If teams go out to play a certain tactic at the breakdown or scrum, they invite the whistle into the game.

“We don’t want to blow the whistle,” he says. “It depends what the players want to do and we can only work with what players give us. Teams do work on refs before every match so they know how far they can push and they prepare their week on that.

“In the 2003 RWC I held the record for the least number of penalties in a match and the most amount in a match. I’d 27 penalties in Tonga’s match against Canada and in another game I’d, I think, seven penalties. That’s down to what you are given by the teams. Your style doesn’t change.”

The 2007 World Cup final in Paris was an unmatched high point coming six years after his first Test match in November 2001, Wales against Romania in the Millennium Stadium. His last will be Wales against France in the Millennium Stadium. A full circle. He hopes to get some Heineken Cup matches in April or May but the way the Irish teams are progressing, that may be a long shot.

The buzz of the challenge, the joking over his regional French accent, the changing rooms, the occasional police escort, it will all be missed but Rolland’s life seems always to be full. And he’s been here before.

Just as rugby turned professional he hung up his boots as a player with Ireland, Leinster, Blackrock and Moseley. There was a vacuum but from that sprung another career. Which he preferred is never in doubt.

“Playing. Playing. Playing,” he says taking a swig from the water bottle.

“Being on the field with players . . . you play as long as you can.”

Six Nations Referees

John Lacey (IRFU)

The one- time Shannon fullback will take charge of his first Six Nations Championship match, when Wales meet Italy in the opening game of the tournament.

Nigel Owens (WRU)

The garrulous Welshman takes charge of two matches, France against England on the first weekend and Ireland’s game against Italy in Aviva Stadium

Craig Joubert (SARU)

The South African will be in charge of Ireland’s opening game against Scotland February 2nd before officiating in Joe Schmidt’s clash with England at Twickenham three weeks later.

Jerome Garces (FFR)

His first match is Scotland against England in Murrayfield before a potential decider on the final weekend, when Warren Gatland’s side play Scotland in Cardiff.

Romain Poite (FFR)

He refereed the deciding test of the 2013 Lions tour against Australia; the Lions won and Poite was commended for rewarding the dominant scrum.

Jaco Peyper (SARU)

The 33-year-old rose through South Africa’s whistling ranks quickly and officiated in the Super 14 in his 20s. He takes charge of France against Italy.

Pascal Gauzere (FFR)

The Frenchman is the official for Italy’s match against England on the last weekend of the championship, a potential title game for Stuart Lancaster’s men.

Steve Walsh (ARU)

The only Australian gets two matches for travelling, Italy’s game against Scotland and the final match of the series, France against Ireland in Paris.

Chris Pollack (NZR)

In 2013, Pollock introduced the ref- cam in a match between Reds and Waratahs. It was strapped round his head. He does Scotland versus France.

Wayne Barnes (WRU)

Unloved in NZ, the criticised English referee is the man in the middle for Ireland’s meeting with defending champions, Wales, at the Aviva Stadium.

Alain Rolland (IRFU)

Poignant because it is his last match in this competition and also where it all started for Ireland’s 2007 World Cup final referee – Wales in the Millennium Stadium.