whistle blower

'You're almost taking a punch on the chin for the good of the game'

Irishman JP Doyle was made redundant by the RFU in England earlier this month.

IN THOMOND PARK in December 2018, JP Doyle found himself in the thick of it during a feisty game Champions Cup between Munster and Castres.

It was the kind of match he loves refereeing – a sparky, full-blooded affair where there simply weren’t any lulls.

Attempting to calm things down, the Irish referee was caught in the middle of a shouting match between Rory Kockott and Peter O’Mahony.

“I had never heard of what a ‘gowl’ was before and I was listening to them shouting at each other and Peter called him a gowl,” explains Dublin native Doyle.

“I went, ‘What’s a gowl?’ and Peter just turns to me and says ‘You’re a gowl!’

Doyle simply had to laugh at the time and he does so often as he reflects on the eclectic mix of moments that stand out during his 12-year career as a professional referee with the RFU in England.

jp-doyle Doyle was made redundant by the RFU this month. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

His time with the English union ended rather abruptly earlier this month when he was made redundant, the RFU cutting loose one of their 10 elite full-time referees as they face losses of over £100 million.

The affable 41-year-old Irishman is sanguine about the situation he finds himself in.

“It was more a company communication, just like any company communication where they said ‘We’re going to need to shed X-amount of jobs for the survival of the company’,” explains Doyle.

“Then it took a couple of weeks to find out which departments had been lined up. The community game coaching took a really heavy hit, they bore the brunt of it, then other departments too.

“I got caught up in it and that’s how it was. You’re almost taking a punch on the chin for the good of the game, unfortunately.”

News of Doyle being made redundant was met with an outpour of shock and disappointment by the rugby community, with praise for his refereeing and also many expressions of hope that another union or league will snap him up quickly.

41-year-old Doyle is trying to figure out what comes next and says he would “love to stay in rugby if I can.” However, he highlights that other rugby unions have their own plans for developing referees.

“There’s lot of words out there that I should be talking to this union or that union but the reality is that they’ve all got their own interests,” says Doyle.

“The IRFU, for example, has its Andrew Braces, Frank Murphys, its top referees, then guys and girls it wants to bring through.

“Whether they’d be interested in me blocking that… They could think about bringing someone in to help nurture and develop younger referees but they already have people for that. They don’t need me, if they wanted me they could use me. You can move unions but other unions have their own development projects going on.”

saracens-v-wasps-aviva-premiership-semi-final-allianz-park Doyle with Saracens out-half Owen Farrell. Paul Harding Paul Harding

Doyle is a qualified school teacher so he has that option moving forward but he surely has more to offer professional rugby and mentions media work as a possibility. The complexities of rugby’s laws are something he could certainly shed light on.

Frustratingly, Doyle is in the best physical condition he’s ever been in, although the changes in the game have demanded that improvement.

“The fitness requirements are now so high that I’ve got my fitness to a place I didn’t think I could get to. Lockdown helped with that. I’m the lightest, fittest, strongest and fastest I’ve ever been. Even compared to what I was at the [2015] World Cup, I’m better than I was but that’s the game – if I didn’t do that, I’d be miles behind. 

“You look at guys like Frank Murphy and Andrew Brace in Ireland, how fit those guys are. The aesthetic look on the pitch has completely changed over the years. You have to be fit and look fit. The top referees are in incredible nick and they look like part of the game, they fit in. They’re not as big as players but they don’t stick out as badly as a ref from 1995 would.”

Doyle explains that he has gone from running around four kilometres per game to 10 kilometres per match in recent years. And it’s not like running a slow, steady 10k – this involves accelerating, sprinting, decelerating in a repeated cycle. So being very fit is essential.

“High-speed running blurs your vision, so you have to have an ability to control your running speed in order to process things under fatigue,” explains Doyle. “Your eyes need an anchor point so if you work hard early and can slow down as you get to the breakdown, you can make better decisions. If you could stand still and referee, you would make better decisions.”

An Irish referee working with the RFU has always been something of a curiosity for rugby fans, particularly when he refereed Irish teams.

Back in 2018, the EPCR had to go as far as making a statement insisting that Doyle’s appointment to referee Munster v Racing 92 in the Champions Cup semi-finals was “appropriate” after it had come under scrutiny in some quarters.

jp-doyle-with-peter-omahony Doyle speaks to Peter O'Mahony during the 2018 Champions Cup semi-final. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I had ref’d Munster six weeks before that!” says Doyle with a laugh. “I had already done Munster v Racing earlier that season at Thomond Park. I had ref’d all the provinces home and away.

“You could be refereeing your family but you have a job to do. It’s the same for coaches or players going back to where they used to play or coach. I think people make more of it than it actually is.”

So how did Doyle end up with the RFU? He explains that “it wasn’t about leaving Ireland suddenly or any fallout, it’s just how life evolves.” 

Growing up in Dublin, he was a scrum-half with Terenure College and Terenure College RFC – where his uncle, Marty, is now the president.

Doyle’s father, Terry, who passed away in 2010, was once the president of Leinster’s Association of Referees, but it wasn’t until JP moved to London to study teaching at St Mary’s University in Twickenham that his refereeing journey really began.

He was playing with St Mary’s but also started to referee a game each week for £50 a pop and things just picked up speed. Soon he was doing English Championship games, topping up his teacher’s wages to the tune of £1,000 a week.

When Tony Spreadbury retired towards the end 2007, Doyle got a tap on the shoulder to become a full-time professional referee and, putting teaching on hold, he got going in 2008.

Now, he glances around his family’s home in London and can see one of his 2015 World Cup jerseys framed on the wall. He has kept match balls from every final he has done across the course of 12 years in which he has been involved in around 500 senior games.

Along the way, Doyle has been well-liked for the good-humoured, engaged approach he brings out on the pitch, which is clearly his true personality. 

“If you look back to my games from 2012 maybe up until 2016, when you’re trying to fit into what they wanted, I was trying to be something I probably wasn’t,” admits Doyle.

“Maybe that was the advice I was receiving but the reality is you’re always better in your natural state. I do not believe you should ever make fun of a player or laugh at a player, but you should always, always laugh along with a situation.”

Doyle says he loves the psychology of the working relationship with players and coaches, something that gets tested by every referee’s decision-making.

jp-doyle-with-head-coach-joe-schmidt-and-simon-easterby Doyle speaking to Joe Schmidt and Simon Easterby in 2014. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Players don’t remember what games I’ve refereed them in, they remember how I treated them… ‘He’s a bastard, he’s ok, or – god forbid – I actually like him’.

“Coaches care what you did. They will remember what games you did because the results are so much more important to the coach. That runs through all sports.

“It’s a bit like school teaching. It’s my job to care about the players. Other referees argue with me on this, saying, ‘The players don’t care, they’ll try to get one over on you’ but so do pupils! They might really like the teacher but they’ll definitely put one over on you.

“The coaches are the parents. They’ll remember the time you crossed their child!”

Doyle says the in-depth refereeing reports that coaches like Joe Schmidt are famous for have never presented any issue. The demands on referees to analyse their performances down to every minor detail mean he has invariably already done the same.

They might disagree on a decision but Doyle outlines that such failure to reach consensus is all in the game.

“Rugby can be really grey,” says Doyle. “You can look at a breakdown and say ‘OK, I gave a rolling away penalty there but I could have given holding on.’

“It could have literally been a 50/50 that went either way and I have to be able to accept that, yes, I gave the right decision but there’s another way of doing it.

“The only way of assessing the 50/50s is ‘How did I make the decision and did I make it the same way across the 80 minutes of the game?’ You have to have consistency to what you applied.”

Though he’s no longer with the RFU, Doyle is very much still in the thick of it. On the day we speak, he has already had two other referees around for coffee to discuss the weekend’s action and some of the big decisions. 

His enthusiasm for digging into the details underlines that this has all been a true labour of love for Doyle.

There’s obvious disappointment at how things ended with the RFU but he’s excited to see what comes next.

“There are very few sides of the game I haven’t seen, but maybe there’s one more side to see yet.”

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