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.