With lockdown continuing and no rugby on the immediate horizon, we take time out this week to talk to Australia’s leading referee, Angus Gardner.
The Roar: Thanks for taking the time to chat to The Roar. How are you coping with the COVID-19 crisis?
Angus Gardner: The main change for me is that, now that referees have been stood down and my wife is still working, I’ve had to switch roles to become house husband looking after three kids under five and a half. It’s quite an adjustment from referee to kindergarten teacher, and I must say I definitely have a new understanding and respect for the role that our teachers play.
TR: Any discipline issues?
AG: Yes, I’ve had to go to the pocket for the yellow and red cards a couple of times, but for the most part it’s been great.
TR: To what extent have you been able to maintain your fitness and conditioning regime?
AG: It’s a huge challenge to try to keep the fitness up, because we’re out of our normal routines, having to fit training around managing children. To start with, because I’d travelled back from the Six Nations, I had to undertake 14 days’ isolation. So that was tough, not having access to a gym, but since coming out of that I’ve been able to get back into a running program as well as hiring a bike.
But it really is a big challenge to try and stay motivated while at home without having the structure that exists around your normal routine. The self-discipline is a real challenge as well, staying out of the fridge, and for me, I love red wine too. So yes, I do need to be aware of the traps.
TR: How do you and the other referees view all of the political goings-on in Australian rugby? Is it something you pay close attention to, or is it more ‘wake us up when it’s all over’?
AG: Obviously there’s a lot of media, but I try to take the approach just to do my thing and just focus on being ready for when we’re called back. I get asked by people for my thoughts, but to be frank, I’m employed just to referee the game.
I do think, however, that it would be great if there was a lot more positivity in the media about rugby and more focus on the rugby side of things.
TR: Last year you had the opportunity to referee at the Rugby World Cup, including being part of the team that handled the final and being on the pitch as part of the presentation ceremony. Can you describe what that experience was like?
AG: Just to be part of that match day team was amazing. It was great to be in that environment, working closely with Jerome (Garces) and Nigel (Owens). A big challenge when refereeing at the highest level is to not be overawed by the occasion, and the biggest thing I took away was to observe how Jerome approached things in exactly the same way, the whole week leading up to it, as he normally would for any other match.
TR: Is it your goal to referee a World Cup final?
AG: Yeah, it is. And I’m sure it’s the same for all the referees who are in that Test match arena. At the same time, that would mean that the Wallabies wouldn’t be there, so with that qualification – yes, if the Wallabies were to miss out.
TR: On goal-setting, did you enter refereeing with an end objective in mind or was it more a matter of trying it out and seeing how it goes?
AG: I entered refereeing always wanting to participate at the highest level. I’ve been lucky to go to two World Cups now in two different roles, and now with some retirements I’m probably one of the more senior guys in the group. So hopefully over the next four years I can draw on that experience as we go along and take another step forward for France in 2023.
That’s not to say I haven’t had my downs as well. It’s interesting because as your career progresses your expectations change and other people’s expectations of you change as well. What I learnt last year is to worry less about the noise and what other people might expect of you and keep focused on the process and enjoying that experience.
TR: What’s the thing you enjoy most about refereeing?
AG: It’s definitely the combination of the mental and physical challenge. I love it because each game is so different, and I love the self-mastery side of refereeing. That encompasses the physical side, to be in the best possible condition, then on the mental side – the sports psychology, behavioural side of things. How am I going to manage certain situations or deal with a particular player when I might not have had an easy dialogue with him in the past? Overcoming all types of pressure situations and translating that into how things play out in the game.
The great thing about rugby refereeing – say, compared to a corporate situation – is that we also get the benefit of taking those challenges, learning from them and putting them into practice again next week, almost immediately.
TR: And what frustrates you the most?
AG: There are days when it doesn’t work out. No different to a team or a player when the outcomes aren’t happening the way you’d like in a game. Plus there’s the off-field stuff, dealing with criticism when things mightn’t be going as well as you’d like.
TR: At the World Cup there was a lot of noise around World Rugby’s directive to lower the point of contact in the tackle, with match officials coming under fire for overzealous rulings. What’s your view on how that was handled and how referees, coaches and players have adapted?
AG: When things are changed so close to an event like the World Cup, then that makes things challenging for players and referees. I’m all for World Rugby’s directives to make the game safer for everyone. But there’s an argument that with the rollout, the lateness created some challenges around giving us time to assess what our tolerances were, how we would treat various situations, and get all of the referee group aligned so that we could implement a high tackle framework consistently across the group.
The fact that things have settled down pretty well through the first rounds of Super Rugby, to me, proves that point.
TR: In 2018 you sent off French player Benjamin Fall for dangerous contact on Beauden Barrett. That appeared to be a textbook reading of the law and the guidelines, yet after protests from France World Rugby later cancelled the red card. Can you take us through how that made you feel and, in light of what happened with Craig Joubert at the 2015 World Cup, what support was provided to you during that time?
AG: This was a great example of how as referees we’re subject to the vision provided to us on the ground. In this case there was another camera angle that showed Fall was slightly nudged that we didn’t see at the ground, and it became apparent that there were some mitigating factors that could have resulted in me downgrading his card from red to yellow.
So, overall, I didn’t have a great issue with that decision being reviewed or changed based on changed circumstances. As far as the support side of things goes, I’m lucky that I’ve got a really good support network to fall back on, but outside of that immediate group I’d describe things as challenging.
What I would say is that it raises interesting questions around how we treat contentious decisions and how we can potentially better serve our fans. We could, for example, look at doing what the NRL does, where the referee’s boss takes the media through the big talking points from the weekend.
It’s fair to say that as a group the referees would advocate for there to be more of a voice around these crucial decisions, because they are the talking points from the game and it would be great to be able to explain to people who love the game how we arrive at our decisions, rightly or wrongly.
That would educate people better about the game – commentators and fans – and humanise us as well. There are issues around the logistics of it, particularly with the number of international matches being played on the same weekend all around the world, but even so I think it’s something we could really look into.
TR: What’s your mindset when you’re assistant refereeing on the touchline? Do you approach that with the same level of intensity as refereeing? Or would you rather you were in the middle?
AG: It’s been a bit of a revelation this year in Super Rugby shifting to working together in pods of four. What that does is take some of the emphasis away from the referee by creating a team environment. So now as an AR, I’m not saying that we wouldn’t take it seriously before, but there is a different mindset now because we’re all conscious of how we contribute to the team performance. I think it’s been a really good innovation and one that’s been welcomed by the referees.
TR: In your downtime do you sit down and relax and watch other matches? And when you do watch rugby is it to enjoy the game at face value or always from the referee’s point of view?
AG: When I’m on the road I watch a lot more rugby than I do at home. I tend to watch a lot early in the week. I’ll watch the last two games of the teams that I’m preparing to referee next to try to pick up on the style of game they are playing and get a sense for any trends I need to be aware of. So I’m usually watching for work, not pleasure.
When it’s in season it becomes difficult to find the time to watch other rugby. Although I enjoy watching the Heineken Cup from the purist perspective of watching how teams adapt to each other, French and UK teams that have different styles, and seeing how they approach that.
TR: You’ve just been put in charge of World Rugby for a day. What’s the one law you would change?
AG: I think I would make it so that time lost to scrum collapses and resets is added on. As a referee there are days when you look a million dollars just because two sides come to play positively and get the ball in and out of scrums. But on the other days, when there are issues and you have to start making subjective judgments, I don’t like to see fans robbed of rugby.
TR: But would that solve the issue of collapsing scrums or just make the game longer?
AG: Obviously it would make it longer. And I get that it would pose issues for broadcasters and so on. But I like to see teams given full opportunity with the ball, and I think fans want to see that too.
TR: What’s your favourite place to referee at?
AG: Ellis Park, definitely. Then Twickenham. As a young boy I have fond memories of my dad getting me up to watch the 1991 World Cup final, and then 1995 World Cup final. The significance of that match, with everything around Nelson Mandela and so on, that left a lasting impression on me.
I’ve been lucky enough to referee two Springboks Test matches there at Ellis Park, against Ireland and France. And for the match against France in 2017 they did the jumbo flyover while we were on the field for the anthems to replicate what happened in 1995, so that was a pretty special moment.
TR: Who are some of the players you’ve most enjoyed refereeing?
AG: Certainly TJ Perenara, he would be number one on the list, no surprises there. I always enjoyed refereeing Rory Best – I found him a tough but fair captain. He’d ask blunt questions, but I always enjoyed the way he approached things.
TR: Someone like TJ, he’s not backwards in giving you advice on the pitch. Do you ever say to him, “I think you should have passed there instead of kicking”?
AG: We’ve had a couple of chuckles in the past about how he loves to tell me how to referee, but no, I don’t tell him how to play in return. I enjoy his competitiveness and have full respect for him for knowing his rugby law as well as he does.
I guess that brings us back to your earlier question about, “What do I enjoy about refereeing?”. I suppose I enjoy moments like those, with TJ, because it does put you on the spot. It tests your ability in a game to ask yourself, “How do I handle this particular issue in the best manner appropriate for the game?”.
And if occasionally it might mean that I have to eat humble pie and say, “Okay, maybe I didn’t get that right today”, well that’s rugby and that’s the challenge that I really enjoy, to make sure I get things right.
TR: Angus, it’s been a pleasure. Thank for being so generous with your time, and let’s hope we see you back on the field soon.
AG: You’re very welcome, and let’s hope that’s the case.