All Blacks coach Ian Foster has called on his team to deliver a ‘Grand Slam’ with the first unbeaten run of The Rugby Championship since they achieved the feat in 2017.
Perhaps the best endorsement of former players making the leap to become referees is that the novelty of a former rugby union player refereeing at international level has worn off.
One of the pioneers, John Lacey, is currently overseeing the next generation of aspiring referees in his dual roles of high-performance coaching and talent identification for the IRFU.
As a winger/fullback, Lacey represented Munster, Ireland A and the national sevens team. At club level he switched from Cork side Sundays Well to Shannon in 1997, during a period of domestic dominance for the Limerick club.
“In the Munster squad, Alan Quinlan was from my hometown Clanwilliam. He was always trying to get me to go to Shannon. I got a job in north Munster, so it was easier to play for a club from the Limerick area,” he said.
“I was very lucky to be on a team littered with players, who a lot of went on to play for Ireland. Back in those days, we trained an extra day, where other clubs didn’t, so we were like a team moving towards professionalism.”
It’s been suggested in the past that the Tipperary native’s background with Munster might have given him an initial leg-up in the pursuit of a refereeing career.
“People automatically think that an ex-player gets fast tracked through the system. There is an element of truth to that, but I was already working in the Munster Academy, so already knew a lot of the laws very well, as a coach, anyway,” he said.
“People presume that I went straight to the All-Ireland League in one season, but I did what others do in three years, in my first six months. It’s ironic because I’m now looking for guys who don’t make it through the academies as a player because they get injured or whatever.
“Contacts will get you so far, but at All-Ireland League level, it comes down to your performances. I started at 32-33 … Quite late compared to what they do now. There’s guys starting now at 18-19, who don’t have that playing background.
“That’s something good and bad because they don’t have that experience of understanding the playing side of the game or even life experience because it’s not an easy job. I think a combination of those things is good for a referee’s development.”
After touching on this point, Lacey expands on the trend of more former players taking up the whistle: “Paul Williams of New Zealand played at a fairly high level, Nic Berry played Super Rugby, Frank Murphy from Ireland has played over 200 professional matches, Allain Rolland played international and Tom Foley for the Ospreys,” he said.
“In Ireland, refereeing’s only fully professional a few years and there’s definitely an avenue there for somebody to stay on after being a professional athlete. Going down the track, I think we’ll see a lot more ex-players going into refereeing … At least that’s what I hope.
“Maybe not players who reach the highest levels, like Johnny Sexton or the Quade Coopers of this world. Being a good player doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a very good coach, or referee either. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into reaching the international level, whether you played or not.”
As someone’s who’s refereed at various levels across the globe, the pinnacle being at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the Irishman gives his opinion on the perception of each hemisphere’s interpretation of the rules, especially at scrum time.
“The brand of rugby played is probably the difference. Dry weather, dry ball and hard pitches for southern hemisphere rugby, so there’s a bit more of a flow to it. Up north, we play in winter,” he explained.
“Pitches are better than they were before, but wind and driving rain can make for tougher underfoot conditions, lots of scrumming and mauling. Fast throwing and more open play is much easier to referee. In the northern hemisphere they will scrum to get a penalty, while down south they do it to get the ball out fast.
“My experience of working with both sets of referees for ten years is that we’re all in the same room getting the same messages. We won’t always agree on everything and that’s healthy. Anybody who goes outside of that messaging will come under the wrath of the selectors and that’s the way it should be.
“There’s no mavericks out there, but Nigel (Owens) would have his own style (laughs). He’s not going to change now going into the last two or three months of refereeing.”
To wrap up, John goes into detail about how he’s assisting the IRFU in ensuring that young referees who excel go as far as they can in the sport.
“Of the 500 most talented referees we have in the IRFU, the top 50 progress onto the national panel. We’ve got five divisions in the All-Ireland League system, so those 50 would operate alongside the pros in the top two tiers,” he explains.
“We currently have five fully professional referees – four men and one woman, who are all fully contracted. In addition to those five, we have what’s called a High-Performance Panel.
“Those guys have been selected based on their performances within the national league system. Through my own relationship with Jerome Garces from France, we run an exchange programme, where some of our guys can referee in France and the French refs come here, to give them all a flavour of what it’s like to travel.”