So just who would like to be a referee these days?


The ideal referee is one you don’t notice at all, but as long we have scrums officials are going to be pilloried from pillar to post

‘I think there is an opportunity for us all to learn here. We probably got a couple of things wrong . . . I thought our scrum had a great day.” Rob Penney after Munster defeated Saracens in December at Thomond Park despite some contentious scrum calls by Pascal Gaüzère.

“We didn’t always get the outcomes we would have liked but I’m pretty confident we were the dominant scrum.” Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall after the same game.

“We’re particularly disappointed with the five metre scrums again. It’s not a referee that has given us a lot of reward from five metre scrums and it was the same after the Ospreys game. We’ll write our report, send it in and see if we get some action.” Joe Schmidt after Leinster defeated Connacht at the RDS in November despite some contentious scrum calls by John Lacey.

The smart coach only complains about a referee in the aftermath of victory. The argument carries more weight. What the club coach also tends to do is sit down Monday morning and write a review for his assessors to examine.

“We will be communicating with them in a day or two,” said Penney after BJ Botha was consistently penalised by Gaüzère (who is not a Six Nations referee) in December. “I thought our scrum was operating pretty efficiently. Yeah, from BJ’s perspective he’s certainly frustrated.” The impression given to many coaches, players and supporters is that referees are being instructed to avoid a quagmire of scrums. It means they may be forced into a, eh, judgment call.

Props are the trickiest and most intimidating rugby players. They know far more about this dark art than the lightweight men standing in judgement.

Even former players turned game keepers – Alain Rolland, John Lacey and All Black Glen Jackson – are backs.

There is another obvious problem. The new IRB head of referees, Joel Jutge (who we requested for this interview but were denied) sat before the Six Nations coaches last week to discuss preventative measures of potential hot topics before the tournament commences.

The fierce rivalry between the coaches ensured an obedient but silent audience, especially during the Q A section.

“The coaches didn’t ask a lot of questions because they don’t want to be giving their rivals an edge,” said John Jeffrey, the great Scottish flanker of the 1980s and famous Grand Slam triumph of 1990.

Ironically, Jeffrey was offered up as the referees’ spokesman in his current capacity as chair of the IRB match officials selection committee.The blonde-maned Borders warrior certainly made many a ref think again.

“The coaches played their cards very close to their chest but what Joel said was the referees want fast ball at the breakdown [snigger] – if teams want to play a fast game after that it is up to them – and we are going to try and get a stable scrum.” Again, the IRB are tinkering with the scrum engagement procedures, changing it to crouch, touch (but do not withdraw the touch) before engagement.

“The scrum at the moment is a longer term project with the engagement sequence not changing for another 12 months,” said Jeffrey.

Former international referee Alan Lewis always refereed scrums with a reliance on a three-point plan.

“I broke it down in my own mind: bind, angle and feet position,” says the former international cricketer who was an official at the 2003 and 2007 World Cups.

“It’s also the conviction with which you give the message. Look the guy in the eye, it’s no different to a school teacher and pupil. Yes, the responsibility is on the players but the referee has to play a role. I had some bad days at the scrums. That was usually when I didn’t get stuck in early enough.”

“A very good ref should be determined by how he manages players. That’s what the whole process is about.”

Lewis laments the increased professionalism in the game as it hinders the traditional club house interaction between players and refs.

“When I grew up refereeing there was a lot more interaction with the players. I could have been in a clubhouse after a game with Darren Garforth of Leicester and he might give you one or two things to look for because, at the end of the day, I wasn’t a scientist of the scrum.”

The ref’s great games are when he is anonymous. Say the words “Kevin Kelleher” to the new generation of rugby folk in Ireland and there will be little response. Now, say his name in New Zealand and from infant to elderly they will tell you he is the man who “sent Pinetree off”. Kelleher put Colin Meads to the line at Murrayfield in 1967.

Wayne Barnes understands the ire of Kiwi folk. Craig Joubert gets it from the rest of us. Their most famous games will forever more be millstones around their necks.

For Barnes, the 2007 World Cup quarter-final when France shocked the world by culling the All Blacks, will always have Kiwis putting two expletives before his name.

For Joubert, everybody else could adopt a similar stance following his lack of decision making in the 2011 World Cup final.

But really, these two referees should be applauded. Lord knows, they must have built up enormous strength of character after being so heavily criticised by so many. Same goes for Rolland after the Sam Warburton red card in the 2011 semi-final.

We could go on. Steve Walsh may have brought a lot of it on himself, but he too has been dragged over some scalding hot coals. But he’s a decent referee. So are the other three.

The problem is that greatness can so rarely be bestowed on a man employed to adjudicate. Greatness is the anonymous, almost invisible referee with exception of Pierluigi Collina. Even Mills Lane will always be associated with Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield after being repeatedly head-butted.

But it is almost impossible to escape clear from the white heat of battle, in a winner takes all showdown. The referee can rarely expect to escape the arena without some mental scars.

And it is at scrum-time that the bell usually tolls.

“Take the recent Ulster game against Castres,” Lewis continued. “They nearly pushed Castres over the line twice and it looked like penalty try territory but the next thing Ulster are done for early engagement.

“I was thinking, ‘Christ, why can’t that scrum be re-set? Let there be some sympathy in terms of the passage of play, the war that the scrum is.’

“In its purest sense did John Afoa go in slightly early? Yes, he did. But for the previous two scrums he nearly milled your man over the line.

“That’s like someone saying I was doing 60mph in a 50mph zone but got two penalty points. Is that really the guy you want to stop? In a situation like that, I might have said to Afoa to stand up and tell both sides to wait for my call.”

And what of the feared descent into quagmire, the temptation to just award an uncertain penalty and keep the game motoring? “You have to work on the theory that your credentials for penalising are clear and obvious.

“Otherwise, people will see you as a bluffer. But find me a happy prop.” Any sign of a former flanker or even frontrower becoming a referee? Jeffrey’s response is a hearty chuckle.