Forget London Irish tomorrow, the first Munster man into action in this season’s Heineken Cup will be running out tonight at Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens. Simon Lewis explains.
FORMER Shannon and Munster winger and full-back John Lacey (below) will make his Heineken Cup refereeing debut tonight in the English midlands, when he takes charge of the Northampton Saints versus Castres Olympique first-round contest, 12 years after scoring four tries in the 1997/98 tournament.
In doing so, Lacey joins former Leinster player Alain Rolland and Scotland’s Malcolm Changleng, formerly of Borders, in playing in and refereeing Heineken Cup matches.
“It’s come very quickly but I’m looking forward to it,” said Lacey, 36, who played at Franklin’s Gardens “years ago” for Munster in a friendly against the Saints.
A full-time coach development officer for the Munster Branch, Lacey fell into refereeing by chance, whilst still an active player.
“I ended up refereeing a schools game between Christian Brothers Cork and St Munchin’s in Thomond Park,” he said. “The referee couldn’t make it and I was in my office when the branch administrator came and said to me ‘you go out and referee, you’re the only one who’s qualified’.
“I’d done the course through work and I went out and refereed the match and found it quite enjoyable.
“So a phone call came from Dave McHugh, who had been trying to push me into refereeing, and Owen Doyle, the IRFU’s director of refereeing development, and between the two of them, they’ve been hugely influential in helping me along the way.
“I don’t know what they saw but if you’ve played rugby at a senior or representative level you’d want to know what players are going through and I think, from that point of view, whereas I obviously know a lot more about the laws than I did when I started, I also probably had a clear understanding of what they are trying to do at times. If a referee has that, it’s a natural help.”
Lacey has picked his way through the ranks. Given his background, he believes he may get more respect from the players he officiates but added: “That only gets you so far, as Owen Doyle pointed out to me from the start. In the end you’ll be judged on your refereeing ability, your law knowledge and stuff like that.
“So some players know my name but, like I was in Llanelli (refereeing Aironi’s visit to Scarlets) and (former Munster player) Nick Williams called me by my first name and I had to pull him aside and say ‘it’s ref until after the match’. If a guy’s calling me by my first name it’s not right.
Lacey says the main positive of officiating rather than playing is “waking up the next morning after a match and not being sore” but there are some drawbacks.
“With the position I played, you’d be in and out of the game but as a referee you’re always in the spotlight and with 12 television cameras around the game there’s not too many places to hide.
“And it’s a good job we were never miked up as players...”
Still only 36, Lacey could still be playing at the highest level had serious injury not curtailed his playing career.
“I’m nearly fitter now than I was when I was playing, but it’s a completely different fitness. I had a fairly serious operation on a groin injury about four or five years ago which made me decide that I’d had enough.
“Plus, I was working for the IRFU and Munster Rugby and I was lucky enough to be a in a job that I liked going to every day and was involved in rugby. Munster Rugby have been very supportive in my refereeing career but there’s a plus as well in that I’m trying to educate players and coaches of all the different representative sides at 18s, 19s and 20s. I’ve done presentations on the laws to all those teams and Tony McGahan brings me in most Tuesdays to work with the senior team.
“There’s no better way to train than being out with a team like Munster for 30 minutes on a training day and there’s good banter there as well. My best friend is Alan Quinlan and he’s always giving me a bit of gip during the training sessions in good old Quinny fashion.”
Lacey would be supportive of any player considering becoming an official. “Players look at me doing what I do and say ‘well, it musn’t be that bad’. Players that I’d be friendly with ask me ‘what’s it like?’ It’s a difficult one to answer. You’ve great days that you thoroughly enjoy and then you’ve tough days.
However he says the more players that get into refereeing the better. “They just have that understanding of what a player’s going through. That can help a referee’s interpretation. That’s the ethos I’d be working on.
“Obviously if a player infringes, he’s got to be penalised, but if you have that knowledge it definitely helps. And it’s definitely an option for a professional athlete that doesn’t make it at the highest level.
If there’s an academy player who doesn’t make it he’s still going to have a brilliant playing knowledge and an opportunity to try and make it through refereeing.”