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Zoom calls with POC, Schmidt and Fogarty - How Irish refs are staying sharp

IRFU high performance referee coach John Lacey outlines what the country’s top refs have been learning.

Updated Apr 29th 2020, 9:30 PM

PROFESSIONAL RUGBY PLAYERS have had to get used to training from home in recent weeks and the pro referees in Ireland are no different.

During this lockdown, the IRFU’s elite refereeing department have called on the expertise of Joe Schmidt, Paul O’Connell and John Fogarty for a series of online presentations and discussions.

Former Test ref John Lacey, now the IRFU’s high performance referee coach and talent ID manager, has been running the the video conferences after reacting swiftly to the shutdown of the rugby season along with Dudley Phillips, the union’s head of referees.

“Just like the players, it was a shock to the system for us,” says Lacey. “We had been looking forward to the business end of the season, European match appointments and everything, but sport is secondary when it comes to a national health emergency.

referee-john-lacey John Lacey retired from refereeing at the end of last season. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“We asked what we needed to do next. We felt that this was an opportunity for us to up-skill from a technical and tactical perspective.”

Ireland’s five professional referees - Andrew Brace, Joy Neville, Frank Murphy, George Clancy, and Sean Gallagher – have continued their physical training, with a minimum of two weights sessions and two runnings sessions each week, their GPS units allowing them to log training data with athletic performance coach Ed Slattery. 

During the first two weeks of lockdown, the group’s Zoom calls involved an in-depth review of the Six Nations from a refereeing point of view.

“We’re lucky we have great Irish representation in the Six Nations meetings with Andrew Brace, Frank Murphy and Brian MacNiece [who is a TMO],” says Lacey.

Thereafter, the addition of the expert presentations each Tuesday has been very welcome, allowing them to drill into key parts of the game in detail.

The calls have involved each expert and Lacey preparing clips to be examined and discussed by the group, providing them with coaching insight into what teams are trying to do – and trying to get away with – in specific areas of the game.

“The game moves so quickly, so this was an opportunity for us to develop our game sense through people who are at the top-end of the game in terms of coaching and then hopefully that will build into the lads’ pre-match plans going forward, that awareness of some of the trends in the game,” explains Lacey.

The five professional refs and Lacey have been joined on the calls by a handful of ‘development referees’ – refs who are showing potential to push into the pro game – as well as referee development managers from the four provinces, IRFU national referee manager David Wilkinson, and John Buckley, one of the union’s performance analysts.

Having an expert like Schmidt engaging with the referees was obviously invaluable, with the former Ireland head coach focusing on the breakdown in his presentation.

irelands-head-coach-joe-schmidt-during-the-training Schmidt focused on the breakdown in his presentation.

Schmidt’s knowledge in this department of the game is legendary and even more relevant given that he was part of the World Rugby breakdown working group that met in Paris last month in a bid make it safer and less frustrating for fans.

“We got a brilliant insight from Joe,” says Lacey. “We discussed so many things like the ball-carrier on the floor, as well as entry being hugely important for everyone. As referees, we don’t want to see anyone getting injured with those illegal side entries.

“We saw it happen with the likes of Dan Leavy and [Ireland U20 back row] Ciaran Booth. I don’t want to see anyone going through that because we allow people to tackle players at the knees coming in from the side.

“From a coach’s perspective, Joe explained that they just want clarity across the board.

“We’re all trying to do the best for the game – coaches, players, and referees have a collective responsibility in that. Coaches will push the edge and it’s up to refs to keep it within the edge, but we all need to know exactly what the edge is.

“It’s our job to keep it consistent with what World Rugby want us to do. We have to align ourselves together because if we don’t, we’ll have different interpretations in different competitions. We want to align ourselves to what World Rugby wants and ref to the best of our ability in line with that.”

The recommendation of Schmidt and the rest of the working group to World Rugby was that the current breakdown laws need to be more strictly imposed, but there is still work ahead for the governing body in terms of providing refs with crystal-clear clarity.

Ex-Ireland captain O’Connell – who is currently unattached to a club after his stint in Stade Français came to an end last year – presented to the refs on the lineout and maul.

“We looked at so many different things and it allowed us to understand the level of detail that a guy like Paul examines the lineout in, a Lions captain who called lineouts all his career. For us to get a snapshot into his head was just brilliant.

“For example, at the moment, a lot of teams are letting the opposition win the ball at the front of the lineout. That means the defence is focused on pushing people towards the touchline.

paul-oconnell-drives-a-maul-that-leads-to-a-penalty-try O'Connell is renowned as a lineout and maul guru. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Paul looked at the numbers in lineouts, the set-ups, the trends, when teams are ready to maul.

‘Then we flipped that to attack and looked at what teams are trying to do both legally and illegally. We saw examples of very good legal defence and examples of illegal defence that should be picked up by the team of officials.

“As Paul said, the role of the assistant referee is very important because the referee could be at the back of the lineout and can’t see everything that’s going on. The importance of the refereeing team working together is huge.”

Fogarty, Ireland’s national scrum coach, shone a light on an area of the game that can be extremely difficult to referee.

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“John presented on the scrums in this year’s Six Nations, trends that are happening with the set-up in particular,” says Lacey. “We got great takeaways there for the lads to build into their pre-match plans going forward.”

Speeding up scrums was another of the focuses of World Rugby’s recent symposium in Paris.

“That’s been discussed, that referees need to drive that process to get a bit quicker,” says Lacey. “That probably boils down the to the strength of the referee.

“If front rows come down and then stand up again, maybe you have some flexibility if you feel there’s something wrong. But if not – bang, you free-kick them. That’s the only way you’re going to change the behaviour.”

After each two-hour call on the Tuesday, the referee group have reviewed the topics individually on the Wednesday, then reconvened as a group on Zoom on the Thursday to agree on what lessons they can carry forward. 

“There’s no point in just listening to somebody if we’re not going to do anything about it” says Lacey.

He explains that the feedback from the pro referees has been excellent, while the development refs have had their eyes opened to the level of detail involved at the top-end of the game.

john-fogarty National scrum coach John Fogarty presented on his area of expertise. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The referees have a week off next week, but ex-Clanwilliam, Shannon and Munster man Lacey is planning more video calls with expert guests looking at different areas of the game such as attack, defence, and captaincy. Like everyone else, the refs aren’t sure how long they will need to wait until a return to the pitch.

“Whenever rugby gets going, our refs will be craving on-field activity,” says Lacey. “As soon as the provinces are back training, we want to be able to get onto the field on them for two reasons: to help our provinces to get prepared and also to start putting into practice in scrums, lineouts, mauls what they’ve learned. I’ve always believed that training with teams is huge for refs.”

The refereeing group have a social get-together online tomorrow night, while they’ve also entered a team into The Big Rugby Run in aid of Feed the Heroes in two weekends’ time as they work to keep their sense of team spirit strong in these odd circumstances.

Lacey, who retired from refereeing at the end of last season, is usually out and about meeting each of the referees for their reviews but feels they have adapted to the lockdown as best possible.

It’s certainly not something he anticipated when he moved into the IRFU role after hanging up his whistle, but the Tipperary man is loving the job.

“I was in the coaching department of Munster before I ended up refereeing. I’ve always enjoyed the coaching side of things. It’s about relationships, having that honesty with people, and transferring some of the experiences I’ve had.

“I’m extremely lucky that the five referees we have now and the next few coming through, their work ethic and efforts to get better are phenomenal. They’re setting the standard for everyone else in Ireland.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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