Following last week's announcement of a restructured and more streamlined referee selection process overseen by a vastly experienced committee, Total Rugby Radio caught up with John Jeffrey, acting chairman of the selection committee, to learn more about the new process.
Total Rugby: There has been a restructure of the IRB referee management functions, can you outline what this effectively means?
John Jeffrey: What we have put together is a set of plans to take us forward to ultimately get the best panel of referees for Rugby World Cup 2015. We are still going to pick the best for best, the best referees will still referee the Tier 1 internationals, but we are going to look below that level and we are putting in place a pathway so those young referees who are performing well can progress and it will give them the chance to prove themselves because when we go to 2015 we want the best referees.
So what we have done is the selection panel of referees has gone up from two to four, that is two from the southern hemisphere – Tappe Henning from South Africa and Lyndon Bray from New Zealand who is also in charge of SANZAR referees – and from the northern hemisphere we have got Clayton Thomas from Wales and Donal Courtney who is in charge of all Heineken Cup referees. These are four former high quality referees who are the official selectors, under the guidance of the IRB High Performance Referee Manager.
In the past a fairly large referee panel has been picked and it has only been picked twice a year, so we have reviewed that and said that is not fair because, like players, some referees lose form and there is not enough migration of referees. We have changed it to four selection windows a year which will coincide with the four international windows and we will pick them on merit and if they are not refereeing well enough they will get dropped from the panel but there is always the road for them to come back.
This time we have picked our referee panel for June. A larger panel which started off the World Cup was actually 19 or 20 referees, we have thinned that down to eight plus one new one.
On top of that we have also put in a pathway in for these referees and the pathway for referees below that selection panel is they must be refereeing Super Rugby or they must refereeing Heineken Cup rugby. To get into those levels you must be refereeing either northern hemisphere competitions like RaboDirect, the Aviva Premiership or the Top 14 in France and similarly in the southern hemisphere they must be refereeing Currie Cup, the ITM Cup in New Zealand or a similar competition in Australia.
For the step up to international rugby we have also said that these up and coming referees that have been identified through the way they have refereed, they would then go to the Junior World Championship in South Africa. We have got a really exciting line up of eight referees and hopefully they will learn from that and they will move up to the next level.
There is a bigger pool than that but those are the eight we targeted this time and they will be in camp out there for the best part of a month so they will be helped to progress, they will get fitness tested and they will get every game analysed so all in all it is a really exciting structure. I think it is vitally important that not only do we have the best panel at 2015 but we also have the best referees doing the best games on an interim basis.
Total Rugby: What about the flow of up-and-coming referees, as a selection panel are you satisfied that continues to be healthy?
John Jeffrey: I think it is and it is helped by the fact we have referee managers in place in every country now and they get all the help they can develop because it is vitally important. For players there are academies, there are given everything through nutrition, weights, to game management, to make them the best players and it is very important that we give the up-and-coming referees, and aspiring referees even, all the tools that they can develop into the best that there is.
We had a long and healthy debate over the eight that should go to the Junior World Championship in South Africa because the pool for that was certainly more than 12 and there are three or four referees who are extremely unlucky not to be in that, but they have been given other internationals, they have been told what they have got to do and hopefully they will progress.
I think it is an exciting time and we have got one new referee to the panel in June and we would be hoping to move on in the next two or three windows and I would like see certainly within the next 12 months another three or four new referees on that panel.
Total Rugby: What for you are the special qualities that go into making an elite referee?
John Jeffrey: Well obviously the main quality has to be a knowledge of the Laws, but they have all got that. I think what we need for the top elite referees is a feel for the game because some of these calls can be slightly subjective and not totally objective and you have got to have a feel the way for the players are going.
The referees can influence a game, how they referee a game can influence how that game is affected, if they penalise the players early on or they have an empathy I think would be the correct word. I think for me that is the one big difference between an elite referee and those just below, an empathy for the players and the feel for the game because that can have a huge bearing.
Rugby referees in general are held in great respect by players and teams as a whole, but to be held in respect by individuals is the key to me because nowadays these referees are fitness monitored so they are at the fitness level is superb, their knowledge of the law is superb, so that wee, it is almost like an X Factor you have and for me that X Factor is the respect of the players on an individual basis as opposed to a team basis.