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How the Pro14 is aiming to bring about 'world-class' refereeing

Greg Garner, the Pro14′s elite referee manager, explains their five-year plan.

REFEREEING IN THE Guinness Pro14.

It’s the old chestnut that supporters are so often exasperated by and a subject that Edinburgh boss Richard Cockerill recently turned his frustration on, bemoaning the standard of officiating in the championship after his side beat Connacht.

So, what is the Pro14 doing to improve the quality of refereeing?

We put that question to Greg Garner, formerly an RFU referee and now the Pro14′s elite referee manager, and it turns out that the answer is quite a lot.

Referee Greg Garner Garner was an experienced referee.

Garner, who took up his position last year, is heading up a new five-year plan around refereeing in the Pro14 and has little doubt that current perceptions can be quickly changed.

“The vision is that we want world-class officiating within the Pro14 from all our unions,” says Garner, who previously refereed 16 Tests, 40 European games and 120 Premiership contests.

“That’s for referees, TMOs, assistant referees. It goes hand-in-hand with the Pro14 wanting to be a world-class tournament.”

The fact that the Pro14 is a cross-border tournament involving five unions in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and now South Africa is a strength, but also a real challenge – particularly in an area like refereeing, where consistency is so essential.

“We have teams and referees from two hemispheres now, so the difference in interpretation can be quite large,” says Garner.

The 13 referees that make up the Pro14′s elite squad – including the likes of Nigel Owens, John Lacey, Stuart Berry, Ben Whitehouse and Marius Mitrea – are employees of their respective unions, but Garner is driving everyone to work as a Pro14 refereeing unit.

“We talk about ‘one team, one culture,’” explains Garner, who oversaw a first-of-its-kind cultural camp for Pro14 referees in Dublin before the season began, where they worked to begin building greater trust and familiarity with each other.

“We can get more consistency across the board,” he continues, “which is what the teams and spectators want.”

The Pro14 has put its money where their mouth is, increasing its funding to the unions for refereeing from €300,000 last year to €1.1million this year.

“For every referee that’s in the Pro14 from the unions, we make a one-off payment to the unions for the year. We’ve also given match fees for everything, whereas before it was only for travel.”

Nigel Owens The Pro14 wants to have more Test-level referees like Nigel Owens. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

Increased funding for supporting and developing referees is important, but one of Garner’s biggest projects since coming on board has been to completely overhaul the review system for Pro14 refs.

The entire process now resembles the kind of analysis, feedback and planning that professional clubs carry out on their performances.

“The teams do this, so why wouldn’t we?” says Garner.

The process begins with each referee’s manager in his union analysing his performance in depth, while Garner also examines every single game across the weekend. 

Simultaneously, a group of independent ‘performance reviewers’ – made up of ex-referees – comb through games looking at penalty decisions and grading them right or wrong, examine TMO use, and highlight non-decisions where there should have been penalties.

On Tuesday, Garner hosts a conference call with all five of the referee managers from the unions, in which they collate all of these reviews and discuss each referee’s performance in order to reach a collective consensus on its quality.

“It’s never just my opinion or one person’s opinion,” says Garner.

“And it means we agree on one clear message. What you don’t want is mixed messages. We don’t want me, as the referee manager for the Pro14, saying one thing but a referee manager in one union saying a different thing.”

On Wednesday, Garner has a feedback session with each of the referees – again, usually by video call – where the results of the previous day’s meeting are discussed, as well as the referee’s own self-review.

By the end of that Wednesday call, the referee’s review has been finalised and “the feedback loop is closed and everybody knows what the view of the referee’s performance was and they have clear targets to work on for next week.

Dominic Robertson-McCoy is red carded by referee John Lacey John Lacey is another of the Pro14's Test-level referees. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That wasn’t happening before,” says Garner, who explains that the previous system involved one person reviewing a ref’s performance alongside their own self-review.

“This is a big step forward for consistency,” continues Garner.

“It’s a true and fair reflection of what happened with the refereeing of the game and it’s one of the biggest things we’ve done since last year – getting consistent processes through the five countries, then we’re all driving this forward together.”

Examining some of the reviews illustrates the directness of the process, with no evidence of pussyfooting around obvious issues. The feedback referees receive is honest and blunt.

While the move towards this level of analysis on refereeing performances is welcome, the question of how the Pro14 actually knows its referees are getting better remains.

Garner has been busy in that area too.

The Pro14 now collates ‘accuracy scores’ across the course of the season for each match referee, bringing together every single one of their penalty decisions and non-decisions to provide clear evidence of how they’re performing over an extended period of time.

The data is clearly presented via pie charts and other graphs.

“We weren’t collating these scores in the past because it was just one person’s opinion and it was different people’s opinions all the time,” says Garner.

“Now, it’s more than one person and we’ve got scores for each round. We’ll be able to show, ‘This is the accuracy that referees have had over the course of the season.’

“Hopefully, it gets better as the season goes on but, if it doesn’t, we can identify, ‘Where exactly are the areas we’re not being as accurate as we want to be? Are the red penalties on that pie chart around the breakdown, or scrum?’

Marius Mitrea Marius Mitrea has been in fine refereeing form. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“By the middle of the season, we’ll be able to see if the referees are getting better. If they’re not, we can see where they’re not getting better and then we can be sure of how to improve.”

Moving towards having neutral referees for all games has been an important part of Garner’s job too, and he underlines that there were neutral refs appointed to all games in the opening six rounds of this season, barring Nigel Owens taking on Cardiff Blues v Leinster due to needing a game before departing for the Rugby Championship.

There was previously a move to ensure neutral TMOs but that is on the back burner for now, with one of the stumbling blocks being the fact that many TMOs have full-time occupations and struggle to get two or three days off for travel.

While no change is imminent, the Pro14 remains “open-minded” about neutral TMOs.

Regarding the relationship with coaches, Garner says great openness and honesty exists. Comments like those from Cockerill are “not particularly helpful to the tournament as a whole” but Garner says he speaks with the Edinburgh boss on a weekly basis.

“After every weekend he sends through clips with commentary over the top and we speak about that. He’s following that process.

“It’s not just coaches pointing the finger at what we’ve done wrong. A lot of it is about, ‘How can we improve this tournament?’ They’re passionate about improving the standards.

“Obviously, when they lose they maybe put a few more clips in but that’s human nature and it’s completely acceptable. We would also get a lot of clips from coaches for clarification, ‘Can we do this? Was this a penalty?’”

Garner stresses that he is attempting to build on the good work of Ed Morrison, his predecessor, in maintaining relationships with the Pro14 coaches.

Next month, the Pro14 will bring together coaches, referees and the referee managers at a meeting in Scotland for the first time, allowing discussion and debate, while they hope to do the same in Ireland soon too.

Dan McFarland Cockerill called into question the standard of Pro14 refereeing. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Referee development is also a major focus for Garner, again working alongside the union.

The Pro14 has a seven-referee development squad, including the likes of Joy Neville, Sam-Grove White, Sean Gallagher and Craig Evans, all of whom have already got games this season and will do so again during the November Tests and the Six Nations.

Garner is working with the unions on an exchange programme for the next generation too, with referees having swapped countries for games, while trips to the Mitre 10 Cup and Major League Rugby in the US are on the cards in the future.

The Pro14 is now running a programme to coach the refereeing coaches from all five unions, hopefully leading to more consistency from the refs by the time they feature in the championship.

While Garner underlines that the Pro14 wants anyone who’s good enough, there is also an interest in getting more ex-players like Lacey, Frank Murphy and Mike Adamson into the gig.

“The one country we’ve identified there is Italy, where we’re thinking that you’ve got real structure now with the national team and two pro clubs working in tandem.

“We’ve gone into Italy to approach the players and said, ‘If any of you have got an interest in becoming a referee, we’ll fund that now.’ It’s not them deciding when they’ve finished playing that they’ll give refereeing a go.

“If they start now, with three or four years left in their playing career, we can work with them, get them games, build experience, so they can finish playing on the 31st of May and on the 1st of June they can become a full-time professional referee.”

The hope is that all of these strands will help to provide the world-class standard of refereeing that the Pro14 craves.

It’s certainly not an easy job standing in the middle as 30 players do their best to win, but Garner feels the Pro14 is now tackling the task with real accuracy.

“There’s more scrutiny on refereeing than ever,” he says. “The TV coverage is second to none, the referee’s voice is public, decisions are under the microscope far more – rightly so.

“It will only become more challenging so our challenge is to keep getting better.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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