'Anything can happen in four years, so I just want to take this opportunity in Japan'

Andrew Brace is the only IRFU match official involved in the upcoming World Cup.

ANDREW BRACE IS just off a long, delayed flight from Georgia back to Dublin as he strolls into a hotel near the airport in a World Rugby-branded hoodie, wheeling a heavy-looking IRFU bag behind him.

His journey from Tbilisi through Istanbul and on to Ireland – with a spin down the road to Limerick still to come – underlines the jet setting life of a top-level referee. This summer alone has taken Brace to London, Argentina, the US, and South Africa.

scotland-v-fiji-autumn-international-murrayfield-stadium Brace in charge of the Scotland v Fiji game last year. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

The 31-year-old was an assistant referee for Scotland’s clash with France in Edinburgh last Saturday before he had to jump on a plane to Tbilisi to be the man in the middle for Georgia’s warm-up game against the Southern Kings.

But Brace wouldn’t have it any other way, and the best trip is yet to come. He will be the only IRFU match official involved in the World Cup in Japan, having been selected as one of seven assistant referees for the upcoming tournament.

“It’s a strange feeling really,” says Brace of his achievement. “Since I started refereeing five years ago, it’s been my goal to go to the World Cup in 2023, so it’s four years early. It’s assistant ref, not in the middle, but it’s great to be part of this team.”

In July, all the match officials involved in this World Cup met for a preparation camp in Shirahama in Japan, allowing them to get on the same page in terms of refereeing focuses.

Brace and the other assistant referees [ARs] will be at the tournament up until the quarter-final stage, when some of the 12 main referees then move into assistant roles for the knock-out games. 

The former Old Crescent player will be on the touchline for the eagerly-anticipated clash between Australia and Fiji on the second day of the World Cup, before being involved in five other pool games, including England versus France in Yokohama on 12 October.

“Consistency,” says Brace of what he and his fellow match officials are looking to deliver in Japan.

“There’s nothing worse than one team of match officials doing one thing and then it’s completely different in the next game. That will always be our number one priority – consistency across the board.”

Brace’s rise through the refereeing ranks has been swift. A native of Cardiff, he was a talented scrum-half during his school days and studied sports science and coaching in Plymouth.

His initial move to Ireland brought him to Tralee RFC, where he enjoyed a year playing, as well as doing development work around region.

He moved to Limerick in 2010 to join Old Crescent and began working with Munster Rugby as a community rugby officer, also overseeing Tipperary, and often visiting disadvantaged areas as part of the Limerick Regeneration plan.

andy-brace Brace was Munster Rugby referee of the year in 2014. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I loved it,” says Brace. “The regeneration role was really challenging because you’re trying to target boys and girls who might not have played the game before, selling the game to them. A lot of the work I did was in Garda Diversion Projects.

“We set up an initiative called Breaking Barriers, trying to build relationships between local clubs and schools to build participation. It was really rewarding to see some of the boys and girls coming out of there and going into development squads.”

While Brace was still playing at Old Crescent, an agent also linked him to the Belgian national team, who he qualified for through his grandmother, who met his grandfather in Belgium after the Second World War.

Brace ended up helping Belgium to win the 2012 Cup of Nations in Dubai. He played sevens for the Belgians and also featured in the 2013 Rugby Europe Championship – the Six Nations B – before a serious leg break and ankle injury finished his playing career for good.

“My head wasn’t in the right place at that time, I was losing the motivation to play and I wasn’t enjoying it as much as before,” he recalls.

“That’s when Johnny Lacey approached me to ask if I’d consider refereeing. I think he was sick of me giving out every Monday morning in the office! I haven’t looked back since.”

The IRFU’s Lacey, now retired from refereeing and in a role as high performance referee coach and talent ID manager for the union, convinced Brace to give it a go and guided him through what was initially a tough transition.

Brace had done a couple of refereeing courses back in Wales with Nigel Owens, but he found the first steps in the AIL and British and Irish Cup tough.

“It was funny, I thought I knew it all from a laws perspective. You learn so much from that first year, and I’m still learning now, we all are.

“The biggest challenge for me starting off is that I thought everybody would be my mate because I’d played, I knew a lot of the guys from the AIL. That’s certainly not the case, that’s the one thing you can’t think. We don’t want to be out there to be disliked, but you’re not there to be popular either.”

john-lacey-with-andrew-brace-and-george-clancy Brace [right] with George Clancy and Johnny Lacey. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Often thrown in the deep end, Brace learned that preparation and reviewing his performances were essential, but he took to the new role impressively and is now one of the IRFU’s full-time professional referees.

He made his Pro14 debut in 2015 and took charge of his first Challenge Cup match that same year, before his first Champions Cup match in 2016, when he also did U20 Six Nations and World Championship games.

2017 saw Brace move into the international arena and he had some big Tests last year, including Wales against Argentina, before he injured his knee when taking charge of New Zealand versus Italy in November, when “I learned not to get in the way of Scott Barrett.”

That dented his prospects of taking charge of a Six Nations match this year, having been in the mix, but his growing skills were recognised with this World Cup appointment.

“There’s higher scrutiny than ever on decisions and very little margin for error,” says Brace of refereeing at professional level. “There are jobs on the line for coaches and players, so you have that pressure of not making a mistake.

“You’re never going to please everyone and you have to get past that. You just try to go out there, be natural, and cut out the clutter.”

As for the World Cup, Brace again stresses the importance of the match official team delivering consistency. World Rugby has placed a big emphasis on its new high tackle and shoulder charge framework, which is set to be a hot topic in Japan.

“The biggest thing to remember is that it’s only a guideline,” says Brace. “For me, nothing has really changed, it’s just a tool to help the decision-making process. One thing we cannot lose is a common-sense approach.

“A red card should jump out to all of us, nine times out of 10 your gut is right when you see something. We don’t have to overthink things, but we have to get that stuff that jumps off the page.”

While World Rugby is focusing on the tackle, many in the game are concerned about the state of the breakdown, particularly in light of recent high-profile incidents in this area.

referee-andrew-brace Brace took charge of the All Blacks against Italy last year but was injured in the first half. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Safety is obviously a huge part of it, and Brace underlined that another key priority for match officials is to ensure quick ball for the attack.

“Teams are striving to get the ball away in under three seconds,” says Brace.

“Any player who’s on the wrong side, and sometimes that might look harsh, but we want to create that quick ball, so he might not put himself in that position again. First things first, we want that tackler away.

“We need to up our game around entries too because you’ve seen the devastating injury to Dan Leavy recently, then in the U20s as well – we’ve got to be stronger on that in terms of upping our awareness around entries, so players aren’t coming in at the side and the poacher is a vulnerable position, gets trapped and injured.”

With new scrum laws to consider too, there’s much for match officials to consider and Brace – who admits to struggling with a work/life balance at times – is leaving no stone unturned as he gets set for Japan.

This is another major step in his progress as a referee and he’s already hoping to be one of the men in the middle in France in 2023.

“It’s about consistency of performances for me. Last year, I had some games in Europe where I set high standards for myself and the performances weren’t up to that.

“I want to keep getting knock-out games and push on into the Six Nations, which has been a goal for the last few years.

“I also want to put my hand up as being one of the senior referees in the group in the Pro14 and try to get the final.

“The knock-on effect would hopefully be pushing onto the next level in Test rugby. I’ll try to drive on after this World Cup. But anything can happen in four years, so I just want to take this opportunity in Japan.”

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