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PRO14 ref boss: 'We're improving'

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'We took some pretty hard decisions at the end of last season and moved a few referees on'

Greg Garner is viewing this weekend’s European action as another encouraging win for the often maligned PRO14. Not the results on the pitch in the games involving clubs from the Guinness-sponsored league. It’s the number of refereeing appointments compared to the rival Premiership and Top 14 leagues that has him excited. 

Flick through the list for the 20 games across the Heineken Champions and Challenge Cups and it reveals ten PRO14 referees were on the whistle, considerably more than the five from France and the four provided by England (the remaining ref was a Georgian). 

There is still a long road to travel. Just two PRO14 referees (Nigel Owens and Andrew Brace) have made the cut for refereeing duty in an upcoming Guinness Six Nations, a tournament with a southern hemisphere/Anglo-French flavour – there are a half-dozen refs from south of the equator along with four French and three English. 

Nevertheless, Garner believes the recognition enjoyed by his league in Europe is reflective of what he insists are improving PRO14 refereeing standards, something that can go some way towards fulfilling the league’s ambition to provide four referees for 2023’s World Cup in France (Owens was their sole Japan 2019 rep).  

For quite some time the tournament has been criticised for inconsistent decision making but the Englishman – who succeeded fellow countryman Ed Morrison, the famed 1995 World Cup final referee – is confident standards are genuinely on the up despite headline-making criticism in November from Edinburgh boss Richard Cockerill.

(Continue reading below…)

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What gives is having all their referees – bar South Africa Stuart Berry – working full-time (Berry, in essence, is full-time as he runs his own events company where time is his own). It means they are constantly on the job collectively, constantly trying to improve collectively. A weekly school-like timetable covers everything. From forensic start-of-the-week reviews to Thursday conference calls where hot spots to focus on in the next round of games are emphasised.

Catapult, Sportscode and Footprint are the IT abetting this evolution, while another development is every referee’s supplementary team of officials – TMO and touch judges – hail from the same country in order to build better rapport.  “It’s like anything,” explained Garner to RugbyPass. “If you give people clear objectives as a group on what we are trying to achieve going on a pitch, and if everybody is consistent about what the message is and what they are trying to achieve, we have got a much better chance of getting better outcomes.”

They need to. The old proverb about giving a dog a bad name is something difficult for the PRO14 to shake off. Even though Garner now has multiple league table-like metrics at his disposal for every decision every single one of his referees makes, convincing the sceptics that standards are collectively on an upward curve can be a thankless task.

Coaches, in particular, are traditionally not shy airing grievances to media over the level of officiating, but those outbursts are seemingly in decline despite outbursts such as Cockerill’s early-season criticism of Ben Whitehouse. “People don’t understand how hard the referees work,” claimed Garner, who earned his stripes on the Premiership circuit in England before taking up with the PRO14 where he bases himself out of Cardiff.

“It’s difficult but we have just got to focus on what we are trying to do on the pitch as referees. The best way we can do that is to produce better referees, which we are doing at the moment. We have reduced the amount of referees we use in the PRO14. Last year we used 18. We took some pretty hard decisions at the end of last season and moved a few people on. We have now got nine referees on our main panel, seven on our development panel, so we have got 16. The nine referees in the main panel, they will referee the majority of games. If you reduce the amount of referees, you can then get consistency.

“How many coaches phone me upset in a week? Look, there are games this year where the referees could have done better and we want them to do better, but that is the nature of rugby. There are always going to be occasions where people make mistakes. But I can guarantee you that this year fewer coaches are coming out week-on-week unhappy with the refereeing performances, so that is really good.

“Another difference is we’re collecting data from the coaches now. After a game, they give the referee a mark out for 10 for his overall performance and then give them a mark out of ten for the five key areas that we focus on – breakdown (fair contest/quick ball), scrum (fair contest/positive outcomes), lineout/maul (fair contest/positive outcomes), space (room to play in) and foul play (player safety). If we can collect that data over the season then we have evidence. If the coaches are unhappy, we can find out why. If the coaches are happy, here is evidence the referees are getting better. 

“Another thing we did was workshopped a day with all the coaches with the referees in the room during pre-season… so we are all going in the same direction. I guess refereeing is by its nature going to be controversial at times. If we can just keep working hard and focus on clear objectives, get more referees into the international level, into the European Cup, then that speaks in itself how well we are doing compared to other competitions.”

The 39-year-old never envisaged winding up in a referee management role. Only when Morrison planted the seed did he see its potential and the former maths and geography teacher is glad of the change of scenery. “I do this to develop people. I’m an educator. I was a teacher in my first profession and I do this because I want to see people develop. I love rugby but I don’t do this job because I love rugby. That is the bonus. I do it because I want to see people develop. 

“This is the thing with all our referees, I want to make them better people. I want them to be successful in their refereeing career and in life. If they’re not successful in their refereeing career I want them to be successful in their career after. We put in a leadership, personal development programme centrally for all our referees, so we’re making them into coaches, training them to be leaders. We want them to be better people because better people make better referees.”

Garner’s advice to his officials is simple: be yourself. “Nigel Owens is a very extrovert person. Fantastic for the game. Fantastic for PRO14. Fantastic for refereeing. So many people have got into refereeing because of Nigel, so I encourage people to be themselves. I cannot speak highly enough of Nigel. He has been a wonderful referee for the PRO14, is still one of our top referees and we want him to continue doing the job for as long as he wants to.

“People are more comfortable being their own person. George Clancy for example, is quite a private individual. That’s fantastic, too. He’s one of our best referees this year and had been for the past decade. There are different personalties and I encourage people to be themselves.”

If this all sounds rosy, it isn’t. Ask Garner if he had the power to change three laws in rugby and there is no hesitation. He has bugbears he wants sorting out. “Opposition scrum-halves at the scrum, they shouldn’t be allowed go past the halfway line at the scrum so therefore the attacking scrum should be able to play ball if it is available. That is one thing I’d change. Another is I really like the 50-20 trial rule, so if you kick the ball in your own half and it bounces into touch in the opposition 22 you get the lineout.

“That would make it a bit more open. It would mean wingers would have to drop back so potentially you would get a bit more space in the middle of the pitch. The other thing I would change is at the breakdown. At the moment, when we have a ruck we have two players over the ball, players wrestle each other to the floor and another player can’t go in and play that ball.

“Once we have a ruck if there is nobody on their feet over the ball, someone should be able to go and pick that up. At the moment you get two players competing, they wrestle each other, the defenders aren’t allowed so they just spread out across the pitch and you then have 13 players defending. If you allowed more of a competition at the breakdown you’d have ten players across the pitch, you’d have more space.” 

More space, more potential for entertainment and, who knows, maybe more appreciated levels of refereeing.

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'We took some pretty hard decisions at the end of last season and moved a few referees on'
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