Alain Rolland’s refereeing philosophy has been shaped by vast experience. “I often say to academy referees, you’re not there to show the players how well you know the law book: you’re there to show them how well you can use it. That to me is very important.”
“As Richie McCaw moved towards me and Steve [Borthwick], the England captain waved his New Zealand counterpart away dismissively, as if to say ‘F*** off, this has nothing to do with you’ I had to explain that I wanted both captains in the conversation. There was a lot of tension and a massive undercurrent all the way through.
Two minutes into the second half I binned Toby Flood for a high tackle. It was a penalty kick but not necessarily a yellow card. I could have left him on but with my mindset and so many infringements, the card was out of my pocket before the guy had hit the ground. It was the reaction of a completely annoyed referee. It was obvious that I wasn’t getting the message across as the penalty count totted up. My body language wasn’t good as I started to get frustrated with my inability to influence the English pack in particular. I was not helping with my tone and my reaction to the players.
When I was doing my review I was mortified. I made a promise to myself: ‘Jesus, I don’t want to see that person ever again.’
- Alain Rolland, The Whistle Blower: A Journey Deep Into the Heart of Rugby
Only in real rugby country is Alain Rolland a household name. After his contentious decision to red-card Sam Warburton, all of Wales got to know who he was. Here at home, in Ireland, the chat show circuit up to now has given him a skip as much as he’s skipped it. That is the preserve of the O’Driscolls and O’Connells, Sextons and Stringers, just as he was always aware of when he refereed, the field was their stage too, never his.
But like them he was an international. World class. He even pulled off something they either wouldn’t or haven’t yet: perform in a rugby World Cup final. To this day he’s the only Irishman who can boast that, having officiated the 2007 South Africa-England decider. So in case you were wondering like he once was who was he to write his own book, well, who is he not to?
Although its Conrad-like subtitle might seem a tad hyperbolic, Rolland’s book does offer a unique and often fascinating insight into what happens in that scrum, in that battle, and what it takes to get to and operate at the elite level.
The most striking feature about Rolland is his self-awareness and self-assuredness.
He can clinically review when he nailed something and when he messed up, like in that autumn international that increased rather than quelled the frustration of the English pack.
He agrees with his wife Lizzie that often he can be “socially lazy”. His father had a loathing for small talk which is why he probably has an aversion to it himself: an early innocuous question about how he sees Ireland-France this weekend, given his connections with both countries, at first creates rather than breaks some ice as he meets it with a rather curt “I’m not really getting into that conversation.” Although he could be quite humorous in his dealings with players, he admits that back in civilian mode he can be quite happy sitting in a corner saying nothing.
That while he has plenty of acquaintances, he has no real close friends other than Lizzie.
“When it comes to a night out,” he writes, “while I can take it, I can very definitely leave it.” He doesn’t rely on the “artificial boost” that is alcohol; he saw the difficulties it caused his prematurely-deceased father. From the time he was just eight he’d make his way over to France on his own to spend summers with his grandparents. But that he’s able to identify why he has such a private, sober, self-reliant streak, there’s something admirable and even likeable about Rolland in that.
Physically, he cuts an impressive figure, looking like Kerry’s Jack O’Connor with Popeye-like spinach-fuelled biceps. He’s just dashed here from the gym in Blackrock where he’ll still workout five or six times a week even though at 49 he’s retired from refereeing 18 months now.
Again, he can trace why and where the gym bug began. When he was 14 or 15 he was smaller than his classmates and vulnerable to being bullied by some of them. It wasn’t incessant or overly-malicious, but it happened more than once. One day he decided it had happened once too often. He was dunked in the swimming pool and as he brought himself to the side of the pool, gasping, he made a vow to himself: ‘I am gonna show those bastards. From now on, I take control.’
He is also suitably detached to size up what kind of player he himself was. He played three times for Ireland - which would make him the first referee in 29 years to officiate a Test match that had won a Test cap as a player himself.
For over a decade he was a regular for Leinster. Tony Ward, for one, would vouch he should have played a lot more for Ireland, once proclaiming him as the “complete scrum-half”, but Rolland knows he was hardly that. Ask him what Alain Rolland the referee would have made of Alain Rolland the player and a rare smile breaks.
“I would have been a very difficult player to referee. I was very chirpy, like a lot of scrum-halves can be. It was something I needed to control better because sometimes I might have said too much and it wouldn’t have gone down well with some of the referees. Because you’re pretty much telling them how to do their job. I’d question every decision they made - or didn’t.”
What would he say if he had to referee himself? Something along the lines he’d once smilingly yet sternly tell Alan Quinlan: You need this whistle today? Or will I referee this one? You’re a far better player than you are a referee, so why don’t you play and let me ref?
He would later transpire to be a better ref than he ever was a player, but probably because he was a top player, and possibly even more so, he was a scrum half. He knew where to go. And he knew what players wanted from a ref.
“I knew what really bugged me when I was playing. And I didn’t want a player to feel the same way about me. The biggest complaint a player would have is that there’s no communication and they don’t know what they’re doing wrong. They’re having to figure it out for themselves and don’t know what to change.
“I think it helped that I was seen by the players as someone trying to work with them rather than against them. The whole thing about players is that if they trust you they’ll work with you. If they don’t, they’ll cause you an awful lot of problems.
“It’s also being in the right place to make the right decision - even if you make it wrong. The second biggest bugbear that players would have is referees coming from 20 or 30 yards away making decisions that are based on the third or fourth or fifth offence and they can never get the first offence. You have to be fit enough to get to the right place. If you’re trundling in five seconds after the event and punishing something else, then the players know this guy is so far off the mark it’s going to be an absolute disaster.” For Rolland, he was there to facilitate the players, not judge them. While in Gaelic Games there’s an increasing tendency to react to even the mildest of queries by bringing the ball 13 metres forward, Rolland and his sport had the smarts to understand the difference between respectful dialogue and dissent.
If he saw and gave a penalty, he had a duty to explain why. If the same team were serial offenders, it was as much a reflection on him as them. He wasn’t out to catch them doing wrong. Once alright he found himself being a Gotcha referee in a game featuring Leicester but from that review he found himself concluding that he didn’t want to see that referee again.
A key principle of his is what he terms materiality. That if an infringement is of no real consequence to what is about to happen next, let it go.
“I often say to academy referees and young referees, you’re not there to show the players how well you know the law book: you’re there to show them how well you can use it. That to me is very important. If you’re a referee who’s only interested in showing how well you know the law, you might get all the decisions right but you’ll have a nothing game.
“If you take the breakdown and you talk about a player who is coming off his feet. How often do you see a player coming off his feet at the breakdown? It happens every single time. So what you’ve got to adjudicate is has that particular action prevented a contest for possession, or not. If it hasn’t, well then it’s not really material as to what happens next because the ball has been moved on and has already gone on to the next phase.”
An intriguing aspect of The Whistle Blower, skilfully crafted by ghostwriter Daragh Ó Conchúir, is the level of mental preparation Rolland and his mentor Owen Doyle engaged in.
He’d a performance reminder checklist of about 10 items that he’d have a look at while waiting in the room. The three Cs - ‘conscious, courteous, calm’. ‘Specific and factual when talking’. ‘Run then walk’. ‘No closer than 3m to the gainline.’
He’d devise a set routine: while some referees conduct the coin toss still dressed in their number ones, Rolland liked to get into his referee kit shortly upon arriving at the venue.
While pounding the treadmill in Blackrock to raise the heart-level, he’d visualise what-if scenarios in big games. If a scrum collapsed in the closing minutes of the upcoming Six Nations game, who was he going to talk to? “You do it on the basis that you hope you never have to use it. But you have to be prepared that if something happens, you’re able to respond accordingly. I say to a lot of the younger refs, you don’t make it up on the spot. You’re preparing to say certain things at certain times in a certain way.”
That comes from how he reviewed and learned from previous performances. More and more studies are showing that what differentiates expert practitioners from merely good ones is what’s termed reflective practice. Rolland was incredibly methodical and meticulous at this. That’s why in his game he was an expert. Excellent. Knowing and accepting where and that he wasn’t perfect.
“I would generally get a DVD of the game afterwards from the broadcasters. We wouldn’t leave the stadium until we’d get a copy. Then on the flight back or in the departure lounge you’d start watching it back on the laptop.
“I’d look at all the penalty kicks I would have given to ensure that I was correct, but I’d also look at things that were incorrect and things that I didn’t penalise and that I should have.
“So I’d identify the things that went well and then if I had to do it all over again what I would do differently.
“I was religious about it. Some people might say to themselves, ‘Oh I better do a review here because I didn’t perform that well there.’ Or when they do well, ‘Ah, I don’t need to review it.’ My approach was you do it every time - whether you did well or not. And I always found there were things that I did well and that no matter how well I did there was always a couple of takeaways for the next game. Because if you stick in your head and think ‘I was perfect there, I’ve cracked it’, you’re finished.”
That’s why he’s fine with the Warburton decision; he still maintains that it was the right call, and points out that Warburton himself has conceded as much. As for the day he played Gotcha on Leicester, or got ratty with the England pack against the All Blacks, yeah, he got it wrong, he didn’t like those performances or that referee either time. But did it sting him? Stay with him? Again, in that dispassionate way of his, no.
“It’s like opening the boot of the car. You open it, throw it in, close the boot, and that’s it. Move on to the next thing. You take your takeaways from it and that’s it. I can’t change anything that I’ve just done. So many people get caught up on stuff that they’ve already done. If something’s happened, it’s happened. All I can do is to try to ensure it doesn’t happen again. By looking at what I would have done differently. I’ll take that and try and build it into the next game if I need to use it.”
This is his first World Cup since 1999 that he hasn’t refereed in, but he’s still spent much of the last month in the UK and will be back over again on Monday, acting as a consultant to World Rugby. For this tournament he’s been working with the four TMO officials and the referees manager, reviewing and assessing their processes and progress.
He’s also been a referee advisor to Tier 2 teams. He was twice over to Japan earlier in the year, advising Eddie Jones and his staff which included one very Steve Borthwick, the two having long ditched that Twickenham game in the boot of the car. During the tournament he’s been in with Uruguay, Fiji, Canada, Romania, Namibia, Georgia. Rolland says in his book the reason he took up the whistle was because it was the nearest thing to playing. Most coaches say that about coaching. Here he’s getting to do both - ref and by extension, coach.
“If they’re having contact sessions, be it scrums, lineouts and mauls, I would ref it, as if it were a game. So I’d sanction what needs to be sanctioned rather than letting them just going through the things and not be aware of what they’d penalise for.”
He’s seen the gains they’ve made. The reduced number of penalties conceded, cards given, the improved discipline. It’s little wonder they’ve welcomed him so openly into their analysts room and training ground, even invited him onto the team bus.
He draws the line at the team bus though. No, he’ll make his own way, thanks. Just as he did when he’d the whistle. The players’ ref yet very much his own man.
**The Whistle Blower: A Journey Deep Into the Heart of Rugby by Alain Rolland (with Daragh Ó Conchúir), published by HeroBooks, is out now.
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