Brendan O'Brien: Must do better - Why do we ask the impossible of referees?

Whatever your taste in sports, odds are it has been soured at times by a decision from a referee or an official of some other hue. Bill White, a former baseball player and commentator, got it just right when he said that umpiring is tough because, no matter what the decision, you’re always half-wrong.

Brendan O'Brien: Must do better - Why do we ask the impossible of referees?

Whatever your taste in sports, odds are it has been soured at times by a decision from a referee or an official of some other hue. Bill White, a former baseball player and commentator, got it just right when he said that umpiring is tough because, no matter what the decision, you’re always half-wrong.

Ron Luciano spent 10 years adjudicating games in Major League Baseball, most of them through the 1970s. A larger-than-life character, he published a book about his experiences too. “Umpiring is best described as the profession of standing between two seven-year olds with one ice cream cone,” he wrote.

The referee never wins and few sports ask more of the man or woman in the middle than rugby.

Greg Garner would likely tell you that. Garner is the elite referee manager for the Guinness PRO14. He is just over two years into a five-year plan designed to drive on the standards of officiating in a competition long castigated for the performances of some of those holding the whistle.

Long is the list of coaches who have fumed over the efforts of officials in the PRO14 and its various previous guises. It’s just over a year since Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill let loose after a game against Connacht in which Ian Davies was in charge. Cockerill went as far as to say that the general standards of refereeing threatened the credibility of the tournament.

Garner knows what it is to feel that kind of wrath.

He refereed 16 tests matches, over three dozen European fixtures and well over a hundred Premiership games in England but one of the first results to pop up from an online search run on him pointed to a Heineken Cup game in 2013 when the president of Perpignan fumed about his display in a game against Munster.

Never mind the fact that the French had sent over a weakened team and lost by the not inconsiderable margin of 36-8 at Thomond Park. No, Francois Rivière was livid with Garner. He confirmed to L’Independant that he had sent a ‘firm letter of complaint’ to the powers-that-be. “I cannot remain inactive in the face of such injustice,” he sniffed.

Such is life for a referee.

No field sport is immune to the consequences of all that attention and pressure. The FAI launched its own five-year strategic plan for referees in Abbotstown just two days ago. The GAA and IRFU have gone into the schools in an attempt to recruit kids early and boost the numbers from the bottom of the pyramid on up.

Former players are another potential pool and the PRO14 has had some success there. Frank Murphy, Joy Neville, and Scotland’s Mike Adamson have all made that transition but refereeing will remain a tough sell when a single blow of the whistle can draw the same ire from parents at a mini-rugby game as it would from the crowd at a Six Nations game.

Following his retirement from playing rugby, Frank Murphy started to work as a referee as a way of staying in the game.Picture: Joe Giddens
Following his retirement from playing rugby, Frank Murphy started to work as a referee as a way of staying in the game.Picture: Joe Giddens

Garner did his best this week to make the sales pitch when he sat down with journalists at the PRO14 media day in Cardiff.

“If you get to international rugby you get to travel the world. I was an international referee and I loved it. I went to some amazing places. It certainly beats getting on the seven o’clock commute to work every day and getting stuck in traffic.”

What might surprise people is the work involved away from the field at the elite end.

The PRO14’s referees take part in video calls on Mondays. Tuesdays and Thursdays, between themselves and with others. Elite referee coaches have been appointed to train and upskill them and these coaches are themselves schooled in the arts of leadership and other areas. All the data from games is recorded and shared on a Catapult athlete management system.

Every single decision made by a referee is logged and categorised under one of three headings: correct, incorrect, or debatable. This is rugby, after all, where interpretations vary from hemisphere to hemisphere, country to country, and even referee to referee. No other competition in the world is collating this data.

“Were they right or wrong when they blew their whistle?” said Garner.

“What were the areas of the game they did or didn’t do well in? How are we doing as a group? Week on week? The data we’ve got this year shows there has been a significant improvement on where we were last season. At the end of last season we were operating at 74% accuracy. We’ve moved up to 83% accuracy after six rounds this year. That’s quite a good improvement.”

The aim is to get that ratio up to 90% by the end of this season. That’s nine correct decisions for every one they get wrong as a collective. It’s a laudable aim. An A-grade in anyone’s language. Will it matter to some? Probably not. For so many of us the referee’s report card will always read: must do better.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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