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THE WHISTLEBLOWER


NEW REFEREES MAKE IT ALL SEEM SO LONG AGO

David Matthews has a wistful look at the good and

not so good old days


It was a pleasure on August 25th to watch SKY’s coverage of the second  game in the Bledisloe Cup series between New Zealand and Australia, magnificently handled by  England’s Wayne Barnes and ably supported by Luke Pearce on the line. He, too, is nearing the very top and their fairly rapid progress can make you feel very old. Two memories stand out, one from so long ago I cannot pinpoint the date and the other just twelve months back.


The first was in fact so distant in the memory that Halifax were still in existence and were hosts to, then Division Two Worcester, in the Pilkington Cup. Very much a test for the visitors at a time when knock-out rugby was a major attraction and the challenge of refereeing it fell to Wayne Barnes. As touch judge I was able to observe at first hand why he was already a real prospect, although his candid admission after a hard fought two point victory for Worcester was that he had learned more that afternoon than in the entire season.


Almost exactly a year ago I happened to be in the crowd for Leicester v Bath; the referee was Luke Pearce and as he jogged by on his pre-match warm up I called to him from my front row stand seat; his response was to vault the advertising boards and come up to offer his greetings. Cool, calm and collected, his youthful athleticism in jumping the wall said it all. He proceeded to enjoy an excellent game. The age gap and how refereeing has advanced so fast are striking.


Thinking back to the time when one lady, the meticulous Carmen MacDonald seemed to run everything in the RFU Referee Department, one wonders how it all fell into place. But, there was hardly ever a mix-up and she was succeeded by the equally efficient Kate Sadler who took the world of organising the referees to new heights.


When the game officially became professional in 1995 the profile of referees, beginning with the RFU Panel who were appointed to the league fixtures, was transformed. They were paid, so took on more accountability, standards did improve as a result of training, coaching and support. Not before time, kit was supplied so that a uniformity, not evident in the days of providing your own, became established. The sponsors led the way in this, boots and trainers were to follow which did not include the infamous white laces. The story behind this obsession was not entirely apocryphal, as an assessor at the highest level was reported to have said that if two referees were judged to be of similar ability, the one wearing white laces would get the vote! Players did sometimes ask why referees succumbed to this silliness, but to be fair it was only an eccentric minority, although your writer was guilty until very late in his career!


You could say that there have been benefits for what the media love to describe as ‘grass roots rugby,’ which would be partly true, were it not for the fact that so many clubs are paying their players it is difficult to say at which level this ends. But, in the case of refereeing, so much has improved that it all seems ages ago, a sure sign of getting old.

DWM 29Aug18 (2)


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