He is a dyed-in-the-wool hurling man who’s made rapid strides through the tiers of rugby refereeing. Ahead of tonight’s European Challenge Cup final, George Clancy spoke to COLM O’CONNOR

FOR a few days at least, John Hayes will be nudged into second spot in Bruff RFC’s list of favourite sons. George Clancy achieves that honour when he referees tonight’s European Challenge Cup final between Northampton Saints and Bourgoin at the Twickenham Stoop (7.45pm).

As with Grand Slam winner Hayes, Clancy was a late convert to the oval code with the rural Limerick club.

“My background is more in hurling than in rugby. In my early years it was all hurling with Bruff but then my father Seoirse was involved with community games and rugby and of course that rubbed off on me.”

The rugby bug bit deeper during his secondary school years at St Munchin’s with Jerry Flannery and Marcus Horan amongst his fellow students.

“I was combining the two sports. But I wasn’t getting the same kick out of rugby as with the hurling. I picked up a few knocks and maybe that made my decision to quit playing. But I was on the team that won the Munster Junior Challenge Cup in 1998. That was the first big provincial title Bruff won and they’ve gone onto bigger things since.”

With his rugby playing days prematurely at an end, Clancy threw himself into his first love, GAA. But once again his father began to coax him in a new direction.

“My father had been a referee and he was at me to give it a go. He just didn’t give up. He kept at me. Eventually he wore me down and I gave it a crack.”

That was 1999. Clancy was dispatched to Johnny Cole, one of the Munster Branch referee recruitment officers, who went through the law book with a fine tooth comb. Soon the new man was deemed ready to be let loose on an unsuspecting rugby playing public.

Clancy recalled: “The first game I did was an U15 match between Richmond and Garryowen. It finished 0-0. Thankfully it was the only 0-0 game in my career.”

It wasn’t just the new role that Clancy enjoyed; he began to rediscover the camaraderie he so enjoyed in hurling.

“The referees would meet every Tuesday night, with the experienced vets helping the young lads along.” He soaked up advice from the likes of Cole and Noel Moore and quickly began to rocket up the ladder of officialdom. After a season of underage he was taking charge of Munster Junior League. Then a realisation began to dawn.

“I had plied my trade in this division as a player and that was as far as I could have gone. I began to think that if I could make a go of refereeing it would take me beyond anything I could achieve playing.”

Clancy’s aptitude and attention to detail began to impress the right people at IRFU headquarters.

“My first season in the All-Ireland League was a real eye opener. One of the tools they use for referee was a ref cam. Basically you would be mic’d up and a guy would set up a video camera in the stand and tape you. So instead of tracking the ball, the camera would be following you where ever you went in a game.

“And of course the microphone was recording everything that I said to the players.”

The tape – this was an age before DVD – would then be analysed by Owen Doyle and Dave McHugh, the chief figures of Irish refereeing. Clancy grimaces recalling those early efforts.

“The reason I have come so far is because of the input I received from Owen and Dave. I remember the first time I saw a review, the decisions I made had been fine but the communication I was using was cringeworthy. I was saying ‘lads’ at the end of every sentence. It was something small but it was something I could work on and take it on board.”

He was repaid for his willingness to learn and accept advice. Another milestone came with a Division One game between Dungannon and Dolphin in January 2004; later that summer he officiated at the European Women’s Championship finals in Toulouse. “That was great. It got me into a tournament environment; I was away from home, it was a really good experience on a number of levels.

“I was offered a contract by the union at the end of this first season. But it meant that I had to make a decision about the hurling. Part of contract was that you had to stop playing other sports that might result in injury.

“Ironically not long before that I got a bad blow to the face in an intermediate game. It was an accident. I wasn’t wearing a helmet, lost teeth and was badly busted up. I had to weigh it up and in the end I had to pack up the hurling. That was a real wrench. I loved hurling and the craic with buddies I had played with all the way up from underage.”

It was a giant leap for Clancy and one not without pitfalls, as he discovered to his embarrassment.

“I started off with a Magners League game at the start of the following season between Borders and Dragons, which passed off without incident.

“My next game was on TV, Cardiff and Glasgow. There I was, ready for one of the biggest games of my career. So I march onto the field and then realise that the two teams are wearing the same coloured jerseys.

“It was total lack of experience on my part. You assume these things are sorted but of course it is up to the referee to ensure they are. We muddled our way through the first half but managed to get standby tops for the second half.”

The faux pas did little to dent his career prospects as he continued in the league and got a number of European Shield games under his belt. Then fate intervened.

“I was set to do touch judge for Donal Courtney in a last round Heineken Cup game between Bourgoin and Bath. Donal couldn’t do the game but instead of appointing someone else I was given the match – my first in the competition. Peter Fitzgibbon had his first game as touch judge. We were two wide eye boys from Limerick heading to France for a crucial game! Thankfully the game went okay.”

CLANCY continued to work on his CV with whistle blowing assignments in the U19 and U21 Rugby World Cups in Durban and France respectively. He also secured a spot in pub quiz trivia by taking charge of the final game in Lansdowne Road before the wrecking balls began to swing.

The highlights came thick and fast in 2007. Clancy was named Munster Referee of the Year and was in charge for a Churchill Cup final at Twickenham.

“I was thrilled to be selected to go the Churchill Cup. It is nearly always played in the USA or Canada but on this occasion it was played in London. It proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because it was in England and played at decent times, the games received far greater media coverage and television exposure. I got to take charge of the final between England Saxons and NZ Maori and that got me in the map with the IRB selectors. Once you are on that, there is no higher level. Through the U19 and U21 I had built up a case for myself. It isn’t about one or two game, you have to have consistency.”

The letter he craved from the IRB panel came the following year.

“I was in charge for the game between Italy and South Africa in Cape Town in July. It was a tremendous honour for me and for me and my family. Then my dreams came through when I was referee for the Six Nations game between France and Scotland in Paris on St Valentine’s Day. Lots of my family including my wife were at the game. I really enjoyed that day.”

Tonight’s game will rank high in the list of career highlights. So how does Clancy prepare for match of this magnitude?

“You wouldn’t like to prejudge but there is certain amount of video analysis on the teams, looking at any unusual moves they may have, the kind of game that they play but that is more for my own positioning. English is the universal language of referees but I have a few words of French as well if required.”

And Clancy is no stranger to the gym as he bids to keep up with some of the world’s strongest and fastest players.

“I am much fitter now than when I was playing. I train in UL a couple of mornings a week with weight sessions, speed work and aerobics. The IRB assesses the referees every month. We have to undergo beep tests and sprinting tests. Thankfully I’m comfortably within the limits they set.”

Sometimes Clancy has some familiar faces for company during those morning workouts. “You’d bump into some of the Munster lads. There would be good banter. That is the great thing about the Munster lads – they are unaffected by what they have achieved. I think when the players see the effort that we put in, in the gym it helps to build a bit of mutual respect.”

Clancy is diplomatic when asked to discuss the role of referees in GAA.

“The experimental rules in the league seemed a good success and I thought they were worth trialling for the championship. I think it would be interesting to compare the stats from league and championship in terms of fouls committed. People say that the rules of the GAA are fine if they are enforced correctly. But I don’t think that the rules, as they are, deal with cynical play. There is an attitude of some to just foul away. And that has to be changed.”

One thing that wouldn’t change is criticism of referees. In this age of High Definition television and multiple camera angles the man in the middle is under more scrutiny than ever. “I’m philosophical about those things. I have no problems when it is justified. The beef I have is when it is unjustified or factually incorrect. There is very little you can do about it. Assessors like Owen Doyle will give me feedback. I’d be my own harshest critic.”


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