Loose Pass: Saluting a trailblazing refereeing career and the Women’s game

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass image 7 November 2023.jpg

Retired referee Wayne Barnes and the WXV trophy.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Wayne Barnes and the WXV…

End of an era

It was with tremendous sadness that Loose Pass noted Wayne Barnes’ farewell to refereeing last week.

Mr. Barnes was not just a good referee, he was, on the pitch at least, responsible for perceivable cultural changes in the role of referees everywhere. Praising good, positive play or responsiveness from players, for example, was almost a pioneering move when he first did it, now it is commonplace among many officials and it was a welcome change. Even if we want players to be as close to machine-like in their skill proficiency, competitiveness and discipline, just as we want referees to be completely error-free, Mr. Barnes often reminded us both of the impossibility of those expectations as well as the fact that they’re more likely with a bit of human empathy added to it all.

But it was a trailblazing career all the way through. He made his Test debut in the Six Nations at games where many of the players were older than him. He was the youngest-ever appointee to the panel of national referees, too. When he burst onto the scene, the ranks of top-level referees were largely populated by 40-somethings (at that 2006 Six Nations only Steve Walsh was fewer than 12 years older) and not a lot of succession was obvious. Mr. Barnes spearheaded a new generation and served as an inspiration to younger referees to buck the age trend.

Early days were character-building. He was at the centre of an outpouring of frustration from New Zealand for failing to pick up a forward pass in the All Blacks’ defeat to France in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final in 2007 (as well as several other decisions), yet was resolute enough to referee the repeat fixture in France a year later. It was an occasion when the online death threats he and his wife Polly referred to in his retirement announcement first reared their hideous head. But it was also an occasion when you recognised just how highly-regarded he was within officiating circles.

And he was an easy target after all. A springy, stutter, loping walking rhythm that constantly looked as though he was about to stumble over his own feet, the young-looking facial features refereeing a game in which the players were getting more hirsute and bulking up all the time, a manner which many perceived as officious and petty, matches in which the stakes continued to get higher, a game in which the rules kept changing, in which the line of respect between players and officials became ever more shaky.

So he drew it again. Dylan Hartley’s utterance about him being a ‘******* cheat’ was not directed at him but was well within earshot. On England’s biggest stage, Mr. Barnes reminded us all that there’s a line you simply don’t cross. In retrospect, it also felt like the day that his authority became less-questioned; essentially when he came of age as a referee. Controversial calls still seemed to follow him around, but that was often because you’d have to look a few times to pick up on something he’d seen straight away, equally as often because he was the one chosen for the high-stakes games. And he worked on himself too. He became notably more eager to engage with players, improved his empathy of what was going on among them, knew when to clamp down hard and when to just have a word. Players responded to that, other officials did too. Many of England’s up-and-coming referees have used the word ‘inspiring’ to describe his influence, while it should not go unnoticed that England currently has a glut of excellent officials developed during Barnes’ time at the top.

Up to two weeks ago he had refereed everything already at club level, multiple times. He took the bronze medal game at the 2011 World Cup and again in 2019. He was a shoo-in for most major Test matches and holds a record for refereeing domestic finals that is unlikely to be broken soon. Yet the global showpiece eluded him – in 2019 almost certainly because England made the final.

The 2023 World Cup Final encapsulated neatly his entire career. A high-stakes game with big borderline calls all over the place. One set of fans bound to be disappointed and searching for a scapegoat – sadly the death threats came again. Discipline imposed, protocols to follow, the laws of the game upheld. And all the while on best terms with all the players, always there with a clear explanation, always there with encouragement for positive responses and play, always coaxing out the best game of rugby possible.

Loose Pass was only able to talk to him once: part of a small troop of fans surprised to find him nursing a beer in a bar in Durban during the 2009 Lions tour. Clearly only there for a little downtime and a feed, he was nevertheless happy to join in over several beers and was far finer company – and far more knowledgeable – than those who only seek to vilify and criticise officials would ever imagine.

So from us at PR, a glass raised to a very special referee and contributor to the game of rugby.

One for the ladies

Admittedly it needed shoe-horning into the calendar a bit, but it was a terrible shame that the WXV tournament should be placed so close to the Men’s World Cup, as it was well-deserving of its own space and promotional glamour.

The quality of ladies’ rugby continues to improve at a gallop, while the gap between the haves and have-nots is closing perhaps faster even than that in Men’s international rugby.

The next Women’s World Cup is in England, who remain also the team to beat at the moment after a comprehensive victory over reigning world champions New Zealand. But France and Canada especially are not all that far off the pace, while the game continues to grow in Wales and Australia, hosts of the 2029 edition, will be directing plenty of resource towards it.

Keep an eye out. It’s well worth a watch.

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