Wayne Barnes couldn’t quite appreciate his panoramic office view on Wednesday. There he was at work at his law firm, 24 floors high up the London Shard and the vista was spoiled. “I can’t really see outside, it’s usually a beautiful view but all I have got today is rain and cloud,” he told RugbyPass shortly after devastating footage had emerged of his native Lydney RFC being flooded in the aftermath of Storm Dennis.
“I have just been speaking to one of my good friends there and they have been checking out fridges and freezers, tackle bags and balls that they couldn’t rescue. They’re just waiting now for the water to subside to see how much damage of the floor is done, but they are talking tens of thousands of pounds worth. These little community clubs don’t have any money in the coffers.”
Unlike Test rugby. In contrast to all that bad weather woe, Barnes’ office view this Saturday is guaranteed to be spectacular and far from watery. Principality Stadium. Roof shut. Capacity crowd in full voice. Guinness Six Nations with France as the visitors. What a way to spend his day!
The big question, though, is how many more spectacular occasions the match official has left. Set to turn 41 in April, there are rumours he is poised to step away. If so, he isn’t telling. “I haven’t made any decisions yet about what happens next,” he insisted, pinching himself he’s set to get stuck into another Six Nations feeling more fit and able than ever.
“The RFU have got a lot of young, very fit referees. The likes of Chris Ridley, who came from Leicester academy playing scrum-half. Karl Dickson, who used play scrum-half, the likes of Craig Maxwell-Keys, they are all running super times on things like the Bronco and the Yo-Yo test.
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Jim Hamilton and Darren Cave give their predictions on Wales versus France
“I’m fit as I have ever been – that’s what my scores tell me. I just have to work hard to keep up with these youngsters but you also train smarter, you get to know your body better… I’m never tested on the pitch physically because we train so hard off it.
“We were in on Monday and Tuesday this week training pretty hard around Twickenham. Of course, things ache a little more in the morning as every 40-year-old finds when they still think they are a 21-year-old. But I’m as fit as I have ever been. When your legs go that is probably a good sign, but at the moment I feel pretty strong.”
In Cardiff, Barnes will assist Matthew Carley. In early March he will do likewise for Paul Williams in Edinburgh and then comes his biggie, refereeing the tournament-closing France-Ireland game. “My first Six Nations was ’07, so 14 seasons later I still get was excited about it as ever. The European Cup is as good as ever, the knockout stages are just around the corner. So no decisions made yet. My contract is up with the RFU at the end of the season but I’m enjoying rugby as much as I ever enjoyed it.
“It’s nice to get involved in the tournament. I wasn’t involved in the first two weekends so I’m excited. It should be a cracking game and it’s great to be able to help Matt in Cardiff… Do I have any superstitions? No. The problem is if you have them and suddenly something goes wrong. I always remember a story about someone making sure they had a Mars bar half an hour before a match.
Our wonderful rugby club @lydney_rfc was completely flooded on the weekend. It’s a much-loved community hub & with men’s, women’s & junior teams to support, it really needs our help to rebuild. Please share or donate if you can. Thank you! X ? https://t.co/2ilHRDOXY0
— polly barnes (@pollybarnes_) February 17, 2020
“One of the touch judges thought it would be funny to eat his Mars about 45 minutes beforehand and his game went to pot. So I always thought best not to have superstitions. I just make sure we’re as thoroughly prepared as can be and that gets rid of the need for superstitions.
“Matt, myself, Karl and Graham (Hughes) have been talking Wales-France for quite a while now, making sure we are all clear on our roles, clear what we will see going into the game. No superstitions, just a lot of hard work and a lot of excitement ahead,” he said, explaining how the older he gets the more of the occasion he takes in.
“There is one piece of advice I always give new referees now. Andrew Brace refereed his first Six Nations match the other week and I said, “Mate, just take it all in. Enjoy the ride to the game, have a look around the stadium before you start putting your kit on, have a look around as La Marseillaise is played because you forget those things really quickly unless you actually appreciate them. That is what I try and do now.
“I wish I was given that advice when I was a younger referee but now most definitely I will be looking around Cardiff. You will see a big grin on my face during the anthems. That France-Ireland match on the last weekend, I won’t be rushing for the anthems to finish, won’t be rushing for the game to finish, I will be thinking, ‘My part is pretty special here’.”
A big thank you to everyone who attended this afternoon’s #StayStrongForOws lunch. Also to @Jnavidi @coryhill_ , Shaun Edwards and Wayne Barnes for the Q&A. Great to see Owen doing so well and so many of the boys he came through the academy with in attendance?? pic.twitter.com/89P8qLXgPh
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) February 21, 2020
The Forest of Dean, less than 50 miles up the road from Saturday’s assistant refereeing appointment in Cardiff, was where Barnes – who has refereed 88 Tests – first got started when teenage kicks were his thing. A dodgy knee while playing resulted in a schoolteaching family friend making a suggestion that ultimately became a game-changer.
“Why don’t you give refereeing a go while you recover from your injury? I went along with the friend of my dad’s, he did the first team, I did the third team and found out that not only do you get a couple of pounds travelling expenses you get a couple of free pints. You could imagine as a 15-year-old this is pretty good. That’s how I started off.
“At university I played again for the University of Anglia firsts where I did my law degree. I’d play on a Wednesday, referee on a Saturday and juggle the two. It quickly became apparent which I was better at and my team-mates would pay testament to that.
“I became a professional RFU referee in 2005 – April 1 actually. Someone had a sense of humour somewhere. But I always said I wanted to continue learning as a barrister as well, staying involved in the law which I always wanted to do growing up.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) November 3, 2019
“I spent a lot of time and effort getting my qualifications so I didn’t want to give that away and the RFU have always been very supportive of that. It’s also nice to have a release no matter whatever job you do,” he said, explaining how his director status at Fulcrum Chambers keeps him grounded.
“We’re a kind of sporting firm as it is. We have got some decent cricketers, have an ex-international water polo player. We all like sport in our law firm and we’re doing a little bit of sports integrity work ourselves.
“Sport is part of what we do day to day but when one of my senior partners is Welsh, I’m sure I will get some words of wisdom on Monday morning when I come in… but to have a hobby, a release from your main job, is a great way of relaxing and making sure it doesn’t become all-consuming.
“Rather than be a referee seven days a week, 24/7, my release from that is to actually go into the office and think about some legal stuff. It’s a nice way to switch off from rugby a little bit. People switch off in their day job and go to play rugby. Mine I guess is just a little bit the other way around.”
That’s not to diminish his attachment in any way. “People forget that referees are fans as well. They just think we are there to ruin their afternoon but I love going around watching games. And the other thing is we listen to all the stakeholders.
“At the start of this Six Nations, we clearly knew we were allowing too long at the ruck to allow the nines to box kick so we spoke to all the coaches and said we think this is an issue. I imagine that would have been something fans were frustrated by.
“That is what I was told when down at Lydney rugby club, why do you allow them to take so much time? So we have changed that. The coaches all said we can change that, so we have seen in the Six Nations so far the No9s being hurried up to kick the ball. They have five seconds – we are calling it slightly earlier,” he reflected, going on to select some career highlights.
“You appreciate moments during a game. A piece of skill and you think, ‘Bloody hell that was impressive’. A big really effective tackle and you’re, ‘I’m glad that wasn’t me’. Certain games stick in my mind. I refereed the Lions in 2009, the first time they sent an Englishman to referee non-Test matches.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) October 15, 2019
“We’re in Six Nations now, was it eleven years ago when the Ireland Grand Slam game was in Cardiff? That will stick with me because of the build-up, the expectation, the fear, all of those emotions going around the game… and then World Cup, I have been to four, refereed 20-odd games and they are all special.
“Refereeing Japan in Japan in the quarter-finals was wonderful. To referee a semi-final at Twickenham and to walk from my house along with the fans in the lead-up to game, there are things like that and so many matches.”
Like France versus the USA recently in Fukuoka, where he assisted referee Ben O’Keeffe. “We were out for a beer in something like a Portakabin at the side of a car park. Some locals came across. Only one of the four could speak pidgin English but we conversed and by the end of the night we had been taken to their local restaurant because they wanted to show off their city and we were then taken to their own karaoke bar.
“That’s what is what I will remember from World Cups, nights like that where all of sudden you get caught up in the local culture and it’s about appreciating it and enjoying it.”
Barry Manilow’s Copacabana, by the way, is Barnes’ current karaoke favourite after Westlife covers put an end to him singing Manilow’s Mandy and Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl. In December, though, a very different memorable scenario unfolded. “We thought last weekend was cold at Saracens but that La Rochelle game in Glasgow, I was close to hypothermia.
“It was pretty bleak. Wing Mark Andreu ended up playing scrum-half and every time there was a stoppage, he’d run off and get a water bottle. I’m like, ‘What’s he doing?’ Then he started handing it to me and it was boiling hot water to warm your fingers. He started running on with two and would hand me one. We would stand there holding this bottle of water trying to warm up. I was never as cold as I was that day.”
Numerous other Barnes anecdotes peppered his 30-minute RugbyPass interview. How Thomond Park cheered the day an Ian Keatley kick smacked him in the head and flattened him. The running commentaries from bygone characters like Andy Goode, the current banter from the likes of Joe Marler, and even the ribbing from wife Polly and others for wearing a jumper with holes during a recent post-game BT Sport appearance.
“They bring a smile to your face. That is what is unique about our sport, the interaction between players and refs and refs and coaches. It does show our sport off in a good light.”
— polly barnes (@pollybarnes_) December 22, 2019
Less so the death threats after an unpunished French forward pass helped knock New Zealand out of the 2007 World Cup quarter-finals. “I don’t read the media. As a referee, you have got to make sure that you go into games with quite a clear mind.
“Of course you get your mates who send across headlines, particularly now with the invention of WhatsApp. You’ll get your 20 uni mates all on a group and everyone loves to send a headline with my name on it.
“Of course you read some bits but I don’t chase headlines, I don’t go looking in the media to find out what people’s opinions are. I definitely don’t type Wayne Barnes into Google, but I have got a trusted group around me, people whose opinions I really respect and appreciate. I’m not going to get better by reading press headlines.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) November 3, 2019
“Any game when you are mentioned afterwards it’s disappointing. That was one of the games where people weren’t just talking about the rugby, they were talking about the referee or the officials and I don’t want to be involved in a game, be it Premiership or an international, where I’m one of the headlines.
“Unfortunately that day I didn’t get a decision right and I became one of the talking points. You learn from that, you try to get better from that. At every game you make a mistake you try to get better and that is what I did back in ’07. I think I have got a bit better since ’07 and I’ll continue trying to get better each game now.
“People ask me what keeps you at the top level. It’s that desire to continue to get better. Nigel (Owens) and I are very close friends. He sang at my wedding, that’s how close we are and we are both are trying to get better every single week. That is our driver, our desire. Just try and keep improving.”
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