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Does the fast-tracking of ex-players improve refereeing standards?

By Paul Smith
Mike Adamson /PA

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For many years football watchers have heard the same claim from their pundits: ‘If only we could fast-track ex-pros to the Premier League, refereeing standards would improve hugely.’

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Funnily enough the queue of recently-retired multi-millionaires wanting to put themselves in the firing line has never been overly long, but in other sports – cricket being a prime example – where players’ earnings are lower and the working environment as a match official is perhaps not quite as hostile, this is a fairly well-trodden route.

Perhaps because of the complexity of its laws, rugby referees have traditionally mostly been former players. At local level many swap scrum cap for whistle in their 30’s before finding their level and continuing to enjoy a run around on a Saturday afternoon as 40 and 50-somethings.

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And until relatively recently launching a refereeing career as an ex-player aged around 30 was no bar to making serious progress. Indeed, England’s two top whistlers of the last quarter-century – Chris White and Ed Morrison – both took this traditional route to the top.

But the advent of professionalism changed all that as full-time training saw the pace of the modern game, which is now also often played on pristine football grounds or artificial surfaces, change out of all recognition.

Refereeing is also now a professional career option – albeit only for a minority of top officials in each country. Along with concentrated recruitment efforts this has seen it become a much younger person’s occupation; attend the monthly meeting of a referees’ society and the average age of those present is now nearer 30 than 50.

Sticking with England as an example, the current generation of top whistlers mostly started very young and worked their way to the Premiership before the age of 30. From Wayne Barnes, Luke Pearce and Craig Maxwell-Keys to recently-retired JP Doyle this has become a common career path.

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However, young referees have previously cut their teeth as even younger referees and with very little on-field playing experience or life experience in other work environments behind them, inevitably there will be some ‘learning curve’ issues while these young bucks climb the ladder.

Even the very best learn a few hard lessons on the way; Coventry supporters still talk about the day Pearce gave Moseley’s front row three penalty tries on their way to victory in a match which for many years was one of the most keenly-contested derbies around.

The advent of full-time paid refereeing roles has allowed rugby to follow cricket in offering a career path to recently-retired players and it was interesting to see a number of ex-pros in whistling action during the Autumn International Series.

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From Racing 92’s Nic Berry to Harlequins’ Karl Dickson and Glasgow’s Mike Adamson to Connacht’s Frank Murphy quite a few former players have been fast-tracked to the top of the refereeing ranks.

But – as the Match of the Day pundits are seemingly yet to appreciate – there are two sides to this, since being a really good rugby player provides an ex-pro with a leg-up into refereeing but is far from a guaranteed ticket to success.

If a former player is fast-tracked into the professional game, a couple of years later he should arrive in the Premiership or URC as an extremely fit referee with a good grasp of what professional players and coaches are trying to achieve. Since most are ex-backs, their understanding of the minutiae of front row play or lineouts may be less solid, but still they should overall be ahead of those from other walks of life.

Recent former professional athletes also look good on camera, which given the huge amounts of down-time spent speaking to the TMO while every lens is pointed directly at them, is (sadly) an important consideration to their bosses in our image-conscious world.

However, if the ex-pro’s career has taken him from school directly into a club’s academy before his playing days lead straight into officiating he clearly has no experience of life outside professional sport. He will therefore have picked up very few refereeing-relevant soft skills, including communication and people management, which come thick and fast in other walks of life such as teaching, business or retail.

Being able to talk to players, knowing what tone to adopt and when, how to control difficult situations and confrontation – including with angry coaches and support staff – is a hugely important part of being a successful referee. While this can be taught, there are few better options for fine-tuning these skills than time served either with the whistle or in a challenging work environment.

In addition, fast-tracking an ex-pro with under 100 games as a ref into the sport’s higher echelons means his Coventry v Moseley moment happens in full glare of the TV cameras. If there were moments during the autumn when these relatively new referees appeared less calm under pressure than Barnes or Jaco Peyper and seemed to need thinking time rather than reacting instinctively this lack of building block experience at the lower levels is why.

In France there is no shortcut to the top for ex-pros. Referees all need a minimum of four years between taking up the whistle and working their way through the semi-pro game to the Top 14 and Pro D2. Given the notoriously physical nature of French club rugby, having under-developed management skills is not considered a risk worth taking.

The closest case is Maxime Chalon whose playing career began with Bordeaux but was mostly in French rugby’s second and third tiers from where he took up the whistle aged 29. Despite his playing background he was still required to work his way through the FFR’s structure meaning he began refereeing life in the amateur ranks and took five years to reach the Top 14.

The conundrum facing governing bodies around the world is the very practical one of return on investment. As the game gets every quicker, very few referees will match the likes of Nigel Owens or Ed Morrison and remain at the top of the sport in their late 40’s. If your entry point is north of 30, following a playing career, even a fast-tracked ex-pro has a fairly limited timespan in which to repay the investment in his training and salary.

To date Allain Rolland is the only ex-pro player to take charge of a World Cup final. Based on evidence currently available, career referees including the likes of Barnes, Peyper and Pearce, all of whom served their time in the game’s lower echelons, may well keep the former Ireland scrum half on this most exclusive of lists for at least the immediate future.

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