Thu 23 Dec 2021 | 08:49

Ref view: The aftermath of RassieGate on officials

Ref view: The aftermath of RassieGate on officials
Thu 23 Dec 2021 | 08:49
Ref view: The aftermath of RassieGate on officials
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INTERVIEW: International referee Andrew Brace opens up about the impact of the Rassie Erasmus video on officials.

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The recent Rassie Erasmus saga has drawn attention to the degree of pressure faced by international referees revealed Brace in an interview with Rugbypass writer Ross Harries.

It’s one thing dealing with a partisan, ill-informed mob on social media, but the World Cup-winning coach posting an hour-long video eviscerating the performance of Nic Berry during the first Lions Test was a different matter entirely.

“That broke all boundaries,” Brace told Rugbypass.

“Poor Nic. What effect is that going to have on him in terms of not being allowed to ref in South Africa for the foreseeable?

“The video was bad enough, but it’s everything that came after that; the pressure that he and his family were put under. He had to stay out there for the following two Tests and, not only that, he had to go back to Australia and quarantine for two weeks before he could go home.

“All of that with that cloud hanging over him meant he was in a pretty dark place,”

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The Rassie video gave all armchair rugby fans a genuine insight into the kind of intense scrutiny all referees come under during the course of just doing their job.

These lengthy, detailed videos unpicking every aspect of the referee’s performance are a common and essential part of the review process.

They’re just not normally leaked into the public domain giving everyone else a chance to pore over them.

Can you imagine another occupation where everything you do is placed under a microscope and picked apart with such forensic, unrelenting attention to detail? It would be exhausting.

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“That Rassie one was pretty long,” Brace said with a smile,

“But’s it’s not far off what we’d normally get sent privately.

“South Africa as a team, particularly with Felix Jones coming on board, do very, very detailed reviews, and a lot of their stuff is valid for us in terms of learning. It’s not just about them chancing their arm; a lot of the stuff is so detailed it can really help us moving forward.”

So what does Brace think about the impact of RassieGate?

“You can say it was really smart because they ended up winning the series,” he admitted.

“But the integrity of the game has been damaged because of it.

“Hammer me behind closed doors if I wasn’t good enough but as soon as you put that video in the public domain, a lot of Rassie supporters will jump on the bandwagon and you’re going to get a hell of a lot more criticism coming your way.

“If you allow that, it’s open season. A lot of coaches have asked the question, ‘Can we all do this now?’ and if World Rugby don’t come down hard on it, then it becomes a free-for-all and we’d travel down a road of no return.”

Taking control of Boks vs England

As fate would have it, it was Brace who got the call to referee England against South Africa in this year’s Nations Series.

A humdinger of a match that was decided by a last-minute Marcus Smith penalty. He flew to South Africa a few days later ahead of his next URC assignment and was still reviewing the Test match the following Friday. He’d gone through the game himself on Sunday, scrutinising his own performance, before an official two-hour review with his ‘coach’, John Lacey, on Monday.

“Then I had South Africa and England coming in wanting answers. That could be 30 or 35 minutes of clips. You have to respond to those and a lot of the time that can sap your energy because some of them are crap and they’re just trying to chance their arm, asking why certain things weren’t penalised,” he says.

“Some coaches can burn their credibility if too many of their clips aren’t valid.”

Following that, the South African scrum coach Daan Human requested a review specifically on the scrums, which led to a half-hour call to provide more clarity.

And that’s all before speaking to his performance reviewer, Bryce Lawrence, on a call supervised by the likes of Jutge and Joe Schmidt. The idea that a modern referee shrugs his shoulders after a match and packs away the whistle until the following week couldn’t be further from the truth.

‘Not supporting anyone; you’re a ref’

During the course of the interview, Brace’s soft Limerick brogue occasionally coarsens into something resembling an inner-city Cardiff accent, which is no coincidence given that he grew up in Canton.

His dual nationality has been another stick to beat him with over the years, something he can now look back on with wry amusement. He moved to Ireland after university and has spent his entire professional career there, eventually becoming an IRFU referee. But just prior to his second-ever international, he gave a light-hearted interview to the Pro12 website during which he declared Rob Howley his rugby hero and cited Wales dramatic 32-31 victory over England at Wembley in 1999 as his favourite rugby moment. The complicating factor was that the match he was about to referee was Argentina versus Wales, in San Juan.

“Sure enough, the papers got hold of it and the headline was something like, ‘Welsh referee refs Wales’. I arrived in Argentina and the first reception I had was, ‘Oh you’re Welsh, how come you get to ref this?’ I was on a hiding to nothing, but thankfully I came through it unscathed. There was no controversy, Wales won and there were no major talking points,” he said.

It’s something he can laugh about now, knowing that his commitment to his job is absolute, and he dismisses any notion of referees favouring a particular side as conspiratorial nonsense.

“If you go down that road, you’d be out of a job fairly quickly,” he says.

“I was a diehard Wales fan growing up, but as a referee, you’re not supporting anyone; you’re a ref. I’m Welsh and I always will be, but I work for the Irish Rugby Union and I’m here to do a job.

“I remember hearing Toby Faletau being interviewed once and he said, ‘I’m from Tonga, but I represent Wales’. That’s how I feel. You go where the work is. I was lucky after uni to land on my feet coming over Ireland to play. A door opened for me, one thing led to another and 10 years later I’m still here. From a reffing perspective, you’ve got to put all that to one side. It’s black and white. Team A v Team B,” he says.

In an arena coloured grey by conflicting interpretations and partisan opinions, it’s reassuring to know that some things are black and white:

“If you ask any coach, what would you prefer – neutrality or the best ref, they’ll say the same thing. They just want the best referee for the job.”

And that’s what Brace is continually striving to be.

By Ross Harries, Rugbypass

 

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