Nika Amashukeli: Georgian official gives inside track on life as an international referee and slams ‘disgraceful’ abuse of Wayne Barnes and his family

James While
Nika Amashukeli

Being a Test match referee these days appears to be a thankless task. With the advent of social media and its traction, match officials have been subjected to some outrageous criticism and treatment, very little of which has any place within the game of rugby.

Planet Rugby’s James While met up with Georgian Test referee Nika Amashukeli, a veteran now of 16 Tests before the age of 29, to learn about the deep analysis, preparation and comprehensive review processes that make up a week in the life of an international match official.

The lead-up

“A few people still believe that we only turn up for 80 minutes on a Saturday and go home – but nothing could be further from the truth,” Amashukeli commented.

“I am in my tenth consecutive week on the road away from home, and I can assure you that every moment of my time is taken up with professional preparation – whether physical, mental or technical – for the matches ahead. I was told when I started to ‘learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable!’ It’s a hell of a tough job that takes me away from my family and way out of what I thought my comfort zone was, but I am thankful for the opportunity I have.

“We have a brilliant World Rugby group that are all absolutely top class elite officials – 24 match referees plus 10 TMOs. What does concern me with escalating criticism is people are unaware how the transparency works and not understanding what the process is regarding the referee feedback and preparation time.

“During the Rugby Championship and the Autumn Nations Series we have worked in pods of four – three referees on rotation and our TMO. We work together to form a relationship and a professional understanding – and just like the actual players, we train and learn as a team together, with the fullest possible support from World Rugby and of course, our Head of Match Officials, Joel Jutge,” enthused Amashukeli.

“As individuals, we all have assigned coaches/mentors. Mine is former Irish test referee David McHugh, a man who officiated in 35 Tests and three World Cups. David is there as a sounding board, a critic and also crucially a friend – someone that’s been there and done it and understands the landscape of Test match environments and the stress of being on the road.

“Being completely honest here, we as players, media, fans and officials all understand that rugby has become an immensely complex game, very technical and pressured in every second of the game. When the games are highly intense and very competitive from minute one to minute 80 it’s just impossible to get everything perfect and we accept that.

“I want to underline the amount of work done by the pod coming up to the autumn matches. Taking a step back for a moment, when we finished the Rugby Championship, we went through top level feedback after the matches via zoom call. We discussed the main trends, big issues, the good points and bad points and what we needed to improve in going into November internationals. As an example in the Rugby Championship, we saw the Darcy Swain clear out on a player’s knee that was a difficult adjudication on the day. We discussed this as a learning point, what support we needed from camera angles, what the process and applicable law for the offence was – as we wanted complete clarity to prevent it reoccurring. Thankfully, we didn’t see a repeat but we were well prepared had it happened again,” he explained.

“Getting back to my pre-match week – we, as a pod, we will work together to analyse the style of teams we are refereeing in an incredibly detailed manner – where the pressure points are likely to be, what type of rugby the sides play – is it going to be a collision game or a wider expansive game? What’s the relative approaches of the set-pieces or driving mauls – all so we have a picture of what we’re about to encounter without ever pre-judging or pre-empting the plays and all based upon a vast library of information based in our online system called AMS.

“The biggest challenge of the refereeing today is hitting a happy medium with, the law and allowing the game to flow. We understand that Tests are won on incredibly fine margins and we want to influence that contest as neutrally as we can. We will even role-play a potential incident to understand how we will react in the cauldron of Test match pressure. When I reffed South Africa v Wales in July with Joy Neville as the TMO we encountered a situation that we had prepared for in our lead up – the result was pinpoint communication, a clear process and a swift outcome.

“We will then speak with the team scrum coaches specifically – so many penalties or free-kicks come at scrum time and they’re cheap offences – ones we don’t really want to be overly technical about unless it’s clear and obvious. We don’t want to be overbearing or microscopic about our officiating – it’s an old adage but give a referee a breakdown or scrum and we can find a technical offence – it’s about materiality and the big picture. We have our own scrum coach – Alex Corbisiero, a world class loosehead – who will talk us through different pictures and give us technical clarity on the many moving parts of the set-piece – you need a front-row forward who has been there and done it at the coal face to assist us interpret a very complex situation.

“In the Rugby Championship this season, a feature of the tournament was the solidity and legality of the scrummaging. It was exceptional – solid platforms, few resets and a proper contest and that pleased all of us greatly – but the outcome was down to a lot of planning and a lot of conversations with teams – all of which paid off,” confirmed Amashukeli.

Match day and beyond

“The second part of my challenge is dealing with pressure that comes from Test rugby in the middle of Aviva Stadium, Twickenham or Loftus, all brilliant stadiums with passionate crowds that will want intensity. We accept that pressure on the game but we should be good enough to conceal our own nerves and be stone cold in delivering outcomes that are great for the game, the teams and the fans.

“Obviously we do understand that there are going to be criticism – it’s always been like that and it’s not something new. However, when the critics go beyond what is legally and socially acceptable and when it comes to a personal family abused and threatened that’s just disgraceful. It’s just not normal – it’s irrational. By all means discuss the decision and the calls in isolation, but attacking a referee’s family? Come on, that’s just ridiculous and quite pathetic behaviour,” argued Amashukeli.

“Our worst nightmare in play these days tends to be of a technical nature, given the reliance on the TMO system; if our communications fail at crucial moments such as a mic coming loose (and it’s happened a few times) then the delays cause unrest in the stands and can put further pressure on us. Slow replays and getting the right camera angles can all take time. It’s worth mentioning that throughout the match, the workload on the TMO is huge – they will be constantly reviewing action, maybe with a number of screens and angles, trying to give ‘soft’ decisions to us to prevent the flow of the game being disrupted. Their job isn’t to advise on marginality – it’s about the big calls, the serious incidents – but we are communicating real-time as it goes on.”


“Within certain sections of the fan community there’s a lack of understanding of the depth of performance review we go through. We are Test match performers and just like a world class team the reviews and learning are deep and detailed. Post-match most of the referees will get the live notes straight away – either directly from Joel or from the match assessor. You will get some feedback from your coach who is actually watching it very carefully from the screen and an overall comment on what was the topline feeling and maybe some notes on the big decisions and their outcomes.

“Thereafter and in the week following we have a series of zoom calls with specific performance reviewers and using our database of refereeing performance AMS, where all the games are uploaded with detailed statistics fixed statistics. How many scrum resets? how many mauls? World Rugby will put in playlists of poor decisions and of good decisions or errors of big impact moments.

“Your review notes are sent to you from the assessor and are super detailed – time coded, penalty accuracy scored, every whistle you’ve blown, every single call you’ve made and an overall accuracy score. If we hit 90% we have hit our base KPI, but the general aim is 94/95% plus and it’s key to understand that also includes the calls we DIDN’T make. The process is 360 degrees – on your Zoom call you’ll have your match team and the World Rugby team, you get to speak on the behalf of team of four on what went well, what could have been better and what are the workarounds.

“We also have input from the team coaches. This is now limited to 10 clips from the match where they will request clarity or explanation. We want them to succeed in playing attractive rugby, so our two way feedback is essential. The relations between the officials and coaches are generally excellent and they are detailed, blameless and very professional in their responses to us, and hopefully we are exactly the same back.

“After you’ve given your insight, the assessors and selectors will make their comments and it’s summed up and put on the AMS. We will also score safety, ruck speed, intensity and other peripheral things within that no blame culture – that’s key for us to improve and we all come at this from a position of wanting to be better.

“To give you an outcome of how this communication works between us as a group and the Test teams themselves – lineout to maul transition. Coaches were pointing out to us that defending a maul once it was set up was almost impossible. We all agreed that the key defensive point was as the catcher was coming to ground – at that moment he hits the floor he can be legally sacked. However, sides had no ability to do this as the lifters were pushing the laws by closing off behind the catcher denying any form of access to the carrier, which is offside. So, we agreed, in consultation with the teams, this season to be much stricter on this in order to give a balance between fair defence and good technical mauling – and as a result, you’ve seen a few calls for the lifters sealing off behind the jumper, something that the coaches asked for,” confirmed Amashukeli.

“In closing, I hope I have explained to your readers just how arduous and detailed our reviews are and equally, how seriously and professionally we prepare for a Test match. We put a lot into our job and prepare our best to contribute to the entertainment and welfare of the game. The reality is we love rugby and we enjoy it. Are we perfect? Probably not, but we are all committed to being the best we possibly can be and that’s as much as anyone could ask of us.”

Planet Rugby would like to thank both Nika and World Rugby for their time in preparing this piece.

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