There may not be any Irish teams running out in Cardiff later today, but Ireland will be represented by referee Alain Rolland and assistant referee George Clancy in the 19th Heineken Cup final.
While it will be Rolland’s swansong, Clancy may well take centre stage in the near future if his career continues on the same trajectory. His passion for the game is obvious from the types of matches he has officiated in this year.
This season alone, Clancy has refereed games from Thomond v Old Crescent in the Gleeson J2 league to Australia v South Africa in Brisbane in the Rugby Championship, back to a match in the last round of the Ulster Bank League before taking the Amlin Cup semi-final in London.
“I love the colour and pageantry, the huge crowd and the noise, the tension, and of course the skills levels that the players involved at the highest level can produce,” Clancy said.
However, the Bruff native is hoping to stay out of the spotlight during today’s final as much as possible.
While tomorrow’s papers will no doubt fawn over some of the world’s best rugby players, referees and their assistants drift in and out of the drama, hoping to stay out of the headlines if possible.
Key refereeing decisions are almost as important as points scored in rugby and with television analysis scrutinising every decision, the margin for error is tiny.
“The closer I can deliver on my plan, the better things will go for me. So that is a comfort ahead of a big game,” he said.
“Sure I will make mistakes but hopefully they won’t be game-changing. I wouldn’t be reading too much of the papers either. That stuff can be distracting.
“Sometimes you can get a hostile reception from people in the immediate aftermath of a game, but that has never happened to me outside the grounds of the stadium. I’d try to keep a low enough profile.”
The International Rugby Board obviously thinks he has what it takes to perform at the top level. Most recently he took charge of the Amlin Cup semi-final between Northampton Saints and Harlequins.
In fact, George had the honour of refereeing the opening game of the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011 which he said was one of his most memorable moments of his career. “I was lucky enough to have my wife and my dad in the stadium which was very special.”
So how does someone from Bruff, whose first love is hurling, get to referee at the highest level in rugby?
“I was about 23 when I stopped playing rugby with Bruff RFC and I was concentrating on playing hurling,” Clancy said, whose father had been a rugby referee for a season or two.
“So he encouraged, or badgered me into giving it a try. Once I commit to something I’d be the kind of fella that would see it through to the end.
“I don’t think many young fellas grow up with the dream of being a referee so I had no real ambitions until I got a few seasons in. I came from a junior rural club, so for me to ref in the Munster Senior Cup was a big deal, as I wouldn’t have been exposed to that.
“I guess the challenge is trying to get to the next level, and that took me all the way to international rugby.”
His first game was an U15s match between Garryowen and Richmond in October 2000, which ended scoreless, and his first professional game was the Borders against the Gwent Dragons in October 2004.
A few months later, Clancy was supposed to be the touch judge in the Bourgoin and Bath game, a round six Heineken Cup match. The original referee got sick, and George was asked to step in.
“Imagine now, only four-and-a-half years after my first game and I was reffing in the Heineken Cup! I reffed the game fairly well, but as I remember it now I was fairly naive in my whole approach to that game.”
He is currently part of an elite IRB panel of referees and has often been the assistant referee, which he describes as a different experience.
“You have to change your preparation towards helping the referee to get the right outcomes,” Clancy said.
“You are not as involved as the referee but it is certainly a critical role. I understand from being a referee how important it is to have good assistance on the sideline, and I try to be as helpful as possible when I’m the assistant referee.”
Away from rugby not many people might know that Clancy holds a Masters in international studies, and also works in the Revenue office in Limerick City.
Juggling work and travelling the world as an elite rugby referee isn’t the ordeal it might appear. Clancy knows he is lucky to have the flexibility at work that allows him to travel at weekends.
“I think it is great that I don’t have to be a referee seven days a week, and that I can concentrate on something else that’s important which keeps me grounded ‘in the real world’.
“My work colleagues are great too. The conversation seldom dwells on rugby,” he said.
The rugby World Cup is now on the horizon but it’s something that Clancy isn’t thinking about yet. There’s the little matter of today to think about first.
“The World Cup is a goal that I’m working towards, but it is 18 months away and my focus now is on the next game I’m refereeing,” he said.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved