An accidental career path brings John Lacey to the Millennium Stadium today.
Lacey blows the opening whistle of the 2014 Six Nations Championship when he takes charge of Wales and Italy at 2.30pm but the Tipperary man’s journey to centre stage in Cardiff had an unexpected beginning.
Lacey, Munster Rugby’s Coaching Development Officer, was a spectator at a Schools Junior Cup game between CBC Cork and St Munchin’s in the old Thomond Park when the appointed referee didn’t show.
“I was asked to deputise, I think only because I was an ex-Munster player. Anyway, it went ok and it was suggested that I might join the ranks,” he explained.
“With the help of the Munster Association of Referees, Dave McHugh and Owen Doyle (IRFU) put a pathway together to get me to do as many games as I could in the first two seasons.
“I had gone back to my old club Clanwilliam after ten years with Shannon and a few seasons with Munster and I was player-coach with the club. I finished out that season and then concentrated on refereeing.”
Since then it has been an upward graph. “Two years later I got my first Magners League game, as the RaboDirect PRO12 was known then, before getting to two U20 World Cups, one in Argentina and the other in Italy.
“Then I got Amlin and Heineken Cup appointments and I did my first international in November of 2012 – the France v Samoa autumn international in Stade de France.”
But this afternoon’s outing in Cardiff will be pinnacle.
“It’s a goal I’ve been working towards,” he admitted.
“The Six Nations is a smashing tournament, the best annual tournament in the world. To get to referee in that was always my long term goal, and the next goal would be to try to get to a World Cup but to ref in this tournament will be an honour for myself and family. It will be a major thing in my life. As a player, my ambition was to play in it; that didn’t happen so getting to referee in one is the next best thing. I’m fierce proud to represent my club in Clanwilliam and so proud that I’ll become the first Tipperary man to get to ref a Six Nations game.”
If, however, Lacey enjoys the limelight he can now bask in, he hopes to help persuade many more former players from Munster and throughout the country to become referees and continue a great Irish tradition.
“There are some ex-players (joining), but probably not enough of them. I would be saying to players on the cusp of retiring that if coaching isn’t their thing, then there is another option to stay involved in the game — and refereeing provides a viable option. Some great referees have come out of Ireland over the years (including John West, Owen Doyle, Dave McHugh and Alain Rolland) and there’s a pretty good record down south with the likes of George Clancy, Peter Fitzgibbon and Leo Colgan. I’m just part of that and I’d hope others will follow on to continue that tradition.”
He clearly finds refereeing a satisfactory outlet, although he acknowledged that being scrutinised so closely brings its share of pressure. But Lacey has had a lot more good days than bad and has huge respect for players at the top of their game because, for the most part, the players show huge respect to referees.
“I suppose professional rugby is a pressure business all round. Will they (players and coaches) agree with all decisions? No! “But because they’re class players they do realise that being a referee is a tough job.
“In some ways it’s getting harder because of the technology that is there now and the resultant scrutiny but it’s very rewarding. Referees make mistakes the same as players and coaches. That’s life and you have to put your hands up and admit it, there’s no point saying you didn’t (make mistakes) when you did. It’s going to happen.
“If you think you’re going to go out and referee a game and get everything 100% right then you’re fooling yourself. You have to expect people will not be happy with some decisions, but that’s sport, that’s life.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved