Rolland’s retirement raises questions over the future of refereeing

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It was announced this week that veteran Irish referee Alain Rolland is set to retire from officiating at the end of the current season. Rolland, 47, has taken charge of over sixty test-matches to date, and in the region of seventy Heineken Cup fixtures in over twelve years of elite refereeing. The Irishman was appointed to referee the 2007 World Cup final and Heineken Cup finals in 2004 and 2013, hinting at his durability and consistency at the top level.

He gained notoriety through his sensational sending-off of Wales’ talismanic flanker Sam Warburton for a dangerous tackle on France’s Vincent Clerc during the sides’ 2011 World Cup semi-final clash. This controversial decision sparked uproar among Welsh supporters, and many prominent figures in the game criticised his ruling on Warburton’s challenge. Despite that incident, Rolland has remained highly-respected in the sport, and is still ranked among the world’s top officials.

However, one particular segment of his decorated career that can frequently be overlooked is his time as a player. The Irishman was an accomplished scrum-half, spending seven seasons with Leinster, and winning three caps for his country between 1990 and 1995. Not the most impressive international record relative to his more illustrious peers, but among the refereeing fraternity, it is streets ahead of virtually any other elite official.

This raises an interesting point, and one that is frequently trotted out by players and coaches alike when seeking to criticise the men in the middle.

Does our current batch of high-performance whistleblowers have the requisite understanding of the game they control? Does one have to play at professional level or thereabouts to truly grasp things from a players’ perspective?

Certainly, in an era where those reaching elite level are ever more youthful, the potential to play such quality rugby is significantly reduced. In the author’s native Scotland, referees in their early-twenties and younger are being fast-tracked through the domestic leagues by the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU).

This, in part, is an effort to have an official from their nation allocated a coveted place on the IRB (International Rugby Board)’s elite refereeing panel, with Malcolm Changleng the last Scot to take charge of a Tier 1 international six years ago.

But are these young adjudicators ready to tackle and temper rugby at such high levels? With so little experience of the sport as a player, their comprehension and feel for the game is oft called into question.

One domestic SRU referee of comparable age to Rolland bemoaned the speed at which the baby-faced officials are progressing up the ranks, with obvious concerns as to their readiness to cope with each respective step up.

The scrum, in particular is an area where many feel referees lack both understanding and empathy. The consensus among front row player past and present is that, without having played there oneself, it is a struggle to fully appreciate just what is going on.

Recently, I spoke to veteran England and Leicester Tigers hooker George Chuter with regards to an upcoming feature on the IRB’s scrum directive to be published on The Rugby Blog in the coming weeks.

“The referees definitely need more education,” he said. “The scrum is a very complex area that you have no real chance of understanding unless you have been in there. And even that is no guarantee of being correct. It is not often apparent from the outside what is actually going on.”

On the topic of education, elite referees and the IRB are keen to emphasise that the learning process for officials, particularly regarding the scrum, is both comprehensive and ongoing. Under the guidance of High Performance Match Official Manager Joel Jutge, the group has been meeting more regularly to work on a more consistent approach to the laws.

Several of the referees I have spoken to recently have been at pains to stress how much time they invest in their own personal improvement and development. In terms of the scrummage, Wayne Barnes undergoes regular sessions with Phil Keith-Roach (the set piece guru during England’s 2003 World Cup triumph), and Steve Walsh feels that there is no area where officials work harder to “up-skill” themselves than the set piece.

But is this good enough? Plainly, many feel it is not. Experienced campaigners such as Chuter have called for referees to spend more time analysing the set piece with recently-retired front row players, in the hope of stamping out – or at least significantly reducing – sporadic and dubious penalty awards.

Perhaps the path trodden by former Saracens fly-half Glen Jackson is one that will be negotiated by many in the near future. The Kiwi retired from playing three years ago, and his ambition coupled with his on-field experience saw him fly up the refereeing ladder to the test-match arena.

With relevant and recent knowledge of the professional game, Jackson is well-placed to pass judgement on the elite players of today. At 37, he is old enough to have enjoyed a lengthy and impressive playing career, but young enough to have many potential years of top-level refereeing left in his locker.

It remains to be seen if more newly-retired players will view refereeing as a viable and worthwhile method of staying in the game remains to be seen. Jackson himself has stated that he hopes more of his contemporaries will follow, but for now, he is a unique figure on the elite panel. In Scotland, for instance, offers were extended by the SRU to ex-internationals Chris Paterson and Cammy Mather, but neither opted to truly pursue officiating.

The retirement of Rolland has highlighted further the spate of fresh-faced referees reaching the pro game at an increasingly tender age. He himself hung up his boots at the dawn of the professional era, and the sport has changed greatly since his own playing days.

Whether today’s youngsters have as full an appreciation of high-level rugby as perhaps desired by players and coaches is up for debate. There is little doubt that both the IRB and the respective unions work hard to supply their officials with in-depth education and coaching, but some argue this falls short of time spent playing at elite level. For now, it seems, Rolland’s departure could well herald the end of an era, and the dawn of a new age of referees.

By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

Look out for Jamie’s upcoming, in-depth feature on the scrum, to be published soon on The Rugby Blog.

14 thoughts on “Rolland’s retirement raises questions over the future of refereeing

  1. With the spate of professional rugby players who have been forced into retirement through injury that may stop them from playing but not necessarily for keeping up with play there is a potentially large group to fill the void that many see in the officiating.

    That said it must be something that the IRB, the unions and even the leagues must work together to identify, promote and manage carefully. There has been some criticism that Glen Jackson has been rushed through and may not be there on merit.

    The danger is how referees are perceived, more as the enemy rather than protector of the players and game by ensuring the laws are upheld. When I finished playing through injury one of my friends asked (and still does) when I was switching to the Dark Side. I haven’t but to stay involved in the game I turned to coaching as a lot of players seem to prefer.

    Maybe every elite retiree should consider the path chosen by cricket’s David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd (and to a lesser extent Brian Moore). Bumble played cricket at the highest level, became a test umpire, and now is a pundit/commentator who can see both sides of the coin.

    Poacher turned gamekeeper is an oft quoted expression and is probably quite apt. Plus imagine the likes or a Brian Moore, David Flatman or Al Kellock in the middle of the pitch whistle in hand. Who’d be brave enough to argue with them about a decision?

  2. A referee with unquestionable integrity, who ruled consistently fair in terms of the laws of the games, whilst at the same time adhering to the spirit of the game. Definitely one of the best of the modern era, if not the best that adjudicated play for the last decade or so. His multi linguistic skill further enhanced his standing amongst players, coaches and officials alike. Rugby Football will be the poorer for his decision. Is there not a chance that he could be involved somehow in mentoring test level referees? A senior referee’s coach, if you like?

  3. Will always be remembered as the man who ruined Wales’ chance of playing in the RWC Final 2011.

    How the IRB allowed an Irish ref with a French father to officiate at such a game a week after Wales put Ireland out of the tournament face and square is a mystery?

    Imagine if it had been the final and he has sent off Richie McCaw and France has won by a single point? Hmm

    If he was a great a ref as this article and some comments claim I wonder why he has never officiated at a Welsh international since that tournament. Good riddance.

    1. TPE – I anticipated this sort of response from some, Welsh fans in particular. I don’t think I claimed that he was a “great” ref as you suggest. I stated he was highly-respected, high-ranking, and had lasted a long time at the top. None of those appraisals are false, and he certainly has plenty of supporters in the game.

      Regardless, I understand the vitriol, but the article was less about Rolland and more to do with the questions his retirement raises.

      Cheers, J

      1. I think the decision shows what a good ref he was. By the IRB regs it was clearly a red card and yet some refs would not have had the guts to make that call in a match like that – which would have been wrong.

        Rolland did the right thing and made the right call in a very difficult situation. Chapeau to him

        BTW – to Bill below, Steve Walsh is lucky to still be allowed to pick up a whistle – he does not even come close to the first division of refs and won’t until he realises that the crowd have not come to watch the Steve Walsh Show

        1. Great stuff Pabs – Rolland right to penalise Wales, Walsh though is bang out of order… I personally think Steve Walsh is great and no, this isn’t a windup. I don’t care about the flamboyance – a lot of the best refs are like that e.g. Nigel Owens at the moment and who can forget the legend that is Norling?

          I think we’ll see a strong split on national lines here – Rolland has rarely presided over a Welsh win and one could get paranoid about that. Walsh will no doubt get short shrift from English fans when a lot of the rest of us cannot see what the problem is.

          1. Brighty – if people cannot see what the problem with Walsh is, then a quick trip to the opticians is in order…

            As you well know, he has a long history (including 3 suspensions and being removed from reffing a super 15 match) of altercations with players – and not just with England, but with Australians and Kiwis as well.

            I wouldn’t say Walsh was flamboyant in the style of Norling or Owens – just a man with a colossal ego and problems with self-control

    2. TPE – Rolland has officiated at Wales games since then.

      I never liked him – way, way before he sent Sam off the joke was that Rolland hated the Welsh and never gave us any decisions, it always went the other way. Most countries have a ref who they think (usually wrongly I will say in this rare moment of calm) is dead set against them. We all know who I am talking about.

      As for the WC semi – I’d have thought yellow was enough but could not swear hand on heart that a red card was wrong. According to the rulebook it’s justified. I’d like to think that WC semifinal occasion, first offence, no intent, etc. would have swayed him towards ending the match as a contest but as for the rule, red card is justified. Still hurts though.

  4. Alain Rolland has been one of the best referees in world rugby for many years although i think he was hasty in sending off Sam 2011 RWC. I dont remember watching to many games he officiated and saying after the game that the “the ref was terrible” As we stand today there are only two referees who get close to him, Craig Joubert and Steve Walsh. The rest are not in same league and even with the TMO/Assistant referees there are too many mistakes being made, especially at scrum time. I am sure that the referees just close their eyes, and decide,either Reset or penalty.Glen Jackson, I believe, is not ready for international level even although he played at highest level. The IRB Referee panel have much to sort out. Have good retirement Alain.You deserve it!

    1. Bill, you’ve just praised Steve Walsh on this blog. Better get your hard hat on and start digging a bunker….

  5. As far as I’m concerned, Steve Walsh can’t be criticised too badly for much of what he does, it’s just that he doesn’t understand the scrum. He wouldn’t be the only one. The personality thing makes it harder to like him – think Henson, Cipriani, Ashton, etc. Who’d want to be a ref anyway – they ought to get paid way more than the players. Money no doubt is the root to this problem (as well as many more!). Pay refs really well and quality individuals will want to get involved and see it as a career. Slightly random musings I know, but I think there are some points worth discussing in there somewhere!

  6. Give Glen Jackson a couple more years, and he will be right up there. He was a very accomplished and able player, but a much better ref. He has even admitted he feels he is fitter now than when he was playing. The few games I have seen him officiate he has communicated better with his assistants and the players than most referees I can think of.
    Rolland was a good ref, and I think he sometimes got a rough deal being selected to referee French games because it always gave the opposing team an excuse to blame him if they lost.
    I still don’t think the northern hemisphere has produced a ref much better than Nigel Owens or Tony Spreadbury.

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