You are viewing the content for Saturday 21 May 2011

Frenchman in the middle is whistling the hard way

Romain Poite takes charge of his first Heineken Cup final this evening but, as Ian Moriarty finds out, he has not been without controversy.

IT’S one of the great sporting mysteries of our time. Just why would anyone want to be a referee? After 16 years of professionalism, rugby is faster and more complicated than any time in its history, and its match officials under more scrutiny than ever.

As one of a handful of young, professional French referees, Romain Poite is riding high. Alongside Jérôme Garces, Poite has been selected on the FFR’s World Cup referee roster although there won’t be many teams looking forward to the Frenchman’s dictatorial style come September.

Putting style to one side, French referees have it tougher than their Celtic cohorts, especially as breakdown issues in France are refereed fundamentally different from anywhere else. Factor in the language issue and it makes for a heady mix of misunderstanding and bemusement on both sides.

Yet there’s no doubt Poite’s interpretation and stern officiating at the scrum in particular has caused bewilderment at times for players and spectators alike. Most recently he found himself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons in the build-up to the Ireland v Italy Six Nation clash back in February.

Italian coach Nick Mallett claimed Poite had written a letter to the Italian Rugby Federation apologising for his handling of the two sides’ championship match, at Croke Park, 12 months previously. Mallett confessed no such letter existed but admitted the controversy may have had a "consequence" in Ireland being heavily penalised by the French referee.

It wasn’t the first time Poite caused controversy in that regard with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen questioning his performance on the same issue after his side’s 26-16 victory against England.

The 35-year old Frenchman also attracted some unwanted attention when he pulled a calf muscle and had to be replaced in England’s Six Nations win over Scotland.

Poite lined out as a back row forward for amateur clubs Graulhet and Cagnac before turning to refereeing after his job as a police officer saw him stationed in Lyon for a while. On returning to the Midi Pyrenees region in 2000, he began refereeing in Les Federales (French divisions 3, 4, and 5) before making the jump to the Top 14 a few years later.

He became a full time referee in 2008 and lives near Toulouse with his wife Bénédicte and his two young daughters, Justine and Morgane. Poite cites the 2008 game between Munster and the All Blacks at Thomond as one of his best memories, although Munster fans don’t quite share his sentiments.