The standard of officiating in the Guinness PRO14 is often a hot topic of debate and particularly so in recent weeks after some contentious decisions in key games.
Cardiff-based Englishman Greg Garner is the man in charge of the officials, in his role as the PRO14’s Elite Referee Manager.
Rugby correspondent Simon Thomas met up with the 38-year-old former international ref to ask the questions fans want answered.
Q: Given the criticism aimed at the the PRO14 over officiating, your job might seem a bit of a thankless task. Why did you decide to take it?
A: I was a professional referee in England for ten years and I wasn’t really looking to do anything else. Then this opportunity came along a couple of years ago.
Ed Morrison, who did the job in a consultant role, approached me. He said he was retiring, they were making the job full-time and would I be interested.
What interested me was it was a blank piece of paper.
In the past, the reputation of the PRO12 referees probably wasn’t as high as the English and the French.
The real big challenge which I have embraced is trying to get the guys from five different countries to come together as one team under PRO14.
Q: You’re now coming towards the end of your second season in the job. How do you view the level of officiating compared to when you took over?
A: I have definitely seen an improvement.
Refereeing is subjective. Rugby is not like other sports, like tennis or golf, where it’s black and white and it’s either in or it’s out. Rugby, inherently, is a grey sport.
So how do we judge referee performance? How do we decide whether Nigel Owens or Wayne Barnes is the best referee?
When you had the four countries with the PRO12, they were evaluating each other and almost knocking each other down so they could promote themselves.
So the performance management just wasn’t really there. It wasn’t done very well.
What we have now is a group of performance reviewers who will watch referees and do a report.
We look at accuracy of decisions and the big incidents in games and we collate all that information.
In the past, it was always one person’s opinion, so it was always going to be subjective.
What I’ve tried to do is make that information objective.
I work very closely with the referee managers in the five Unions. We look at what the performance reviewer has said and come to a judgement on whether that’s right or wrong.
We have seen a significant increase in referee accuracy this year and a significant decrease in game-effecting decisions.
So I would argue I’ve seen definite improvement in standards.
Q: But what would you then say about an incident like the disallowing of Jason Harries’ try for Cardiff Blues against Connacht last month?
A: Look, to be perfectly blunt, the decision was wrong.
It was a try. We, as a tournament, got that wrong.
It’s very easy for people to see that on TV and go ‘We can all see that is a try, how can the officials not get that right?’
I spent most of last week going through the question why we got that wrong.
What we found is it wasn’t actually one individual’s fault or one thing, it was just a culmination of different things that happened on the day.
For a start, there was the weather. I’m not trying to make excuses here, but the weather meant the big TV screen at the ground couldn’t get raised to its full height for health and safety reasons.
We have then got the officials trying to look at the screen, where it’s behind the crowd and they couldn’t see it clearly.
There weren’t monitors at the side of the pitch, which we will look to rectify moving forward for the future.
You then look at the broadcast. There was a bit of confusion in the van. I’m not sure the TMO viewed the real killer footage.
With the sideline view and the two end-on views he saw, the footage was inconclusive.
He then asked the broadcasters if they had any additional angles to show him and they said no, which they hadn’t.
But there was some high definition footage which showed it was clearly a try, For whatever reason, the TMO didn’t see that footage.
I don’t think that was anybody’s fault because it was there for the broadcasters.
The conclusive view which would have delivered the right decision wasn’t available to the TMO.
Unfortunately, we did get it wrong.
It’s now a question of working with the match officials, broadcasters and the grounds to make sure that never happens again.
Q: The TMO on that occasion was Irish. Would you accept if you were to have neutral referees and TMOs for every game, the narrative would be purely about competency when mistakes are made and not impartiality?
A: I totally agree with you.
This season, we’ve had neutral referees for all of our games, bar two. The reason we don’t have neutral TMOs at the moment is two-fold.
One is cost and the other is availability. Cost we can deal with, that’s an easy thing, we can fund that.
Availability is the key thing. All the TMOs have other jobs.
Probably the age range is between 40 and 55 and they have all got pretty good professional jobs.
To have neutral TMOs for every game, you would be asking them to travel 15 rounds out of 21, on top of European games where they travel anyway.
So we would be asking them to travel maybe 20 to 25 weeks a year, with international matches. That’s then using up all their holiday to travel to games.
At the moment, we just haven’t got the personnel that are willing to do that.
Q: Could you not set up a dedicated group of full-time TMOs who could work remotely from a TV studio, meaning they wouldn’t have to travel to games?
A: That could be an option. I know World Rugby are looking into having full-time TMOs on the international panel.
When I came into the job two years ago, we didn’t even have full-time referees in the tournament. That was the initial priority.
From next season, all of our referees will be full-time, which is a big jump forward to what it has been in the past.
We are looking at ways we can get the TMO better.
We have looked at the Hawkeye freeze frame system, which will be used at the World Cup. We are doing some trials on that and will look to see if we can get that in situ for next year.
We have looked at the possibility of setting up a TMO bunker like they do with the NRL and NFL.
But wherever you put them, there is still going to be that human factor where people disagree about a decision.
If we have a remote unit, it certainly won’t be done for next season. It would have to go through a staged process of cost analysis.
It could be an option, we are definitely looking into it. Whether it’s the best option I don’t know.
In terms of having all the TMOs being neutral next season, if we can do it, we will do it.
We can get around the cost. It’s availability.
The question posed to the Unions is can they provide personnel to be TMOs who are going to be available to travel 15 weeks of the year.
If they all come back and say ‘Yes we can do that’ then we will have neutral TMOs.
As you say, it takes the conversation away from the personal neutrality.
Q: How do you feel about that conversation and the questioning of the impartiality of officials that you see from some fans?
A: I can totally understand where they are coming from.
These people are fans. These are the people we want to be involved in the game, so we have to listen to them.
They are the future of the game, the future of the business.
It’s their opinion. I value their opinion. I don’t get annoyed by it.
Q: Another decision that provoked debate recently was Ben Whitehouse issuing just a yellow card to Benetton’s Tommaso Benvenuti for a high hit on Munster’s Stephen Archer and referring to “medium force” in his explanation. Benvenuti was cited after the game and banned for two weeks. Can you clear that one up?
A: We are encouraging referees to become more reflective and be more open about their performance.
The first thing Ben did when he got back from Italy on the Sunday was to phone me and ask if we could meet up to go through the game.
I said yes, of course. Ben is our future, he’s a really good referee.
We met up and the first thing he said to me was ‘Look, it should have been a red card’.
That’s from him. That wasn’t from me telling him.
He had taken a step back, looked at it on the way home and gone that should have been a red card.
He even questioned himself and said he didn’t know why he had started talking about medium force. I think he confused himself.
The way he explained it is Stephen Archer got tackled upright and as he tried to wrestle the ball away, his head turned, as Benvenuti was coming in with the shoulder.
Ben saw that head turn and in his mind that was his mitigation down from a red to a yellow and then he just didn’t explain it very well.
My challenge to him was why did you think that was a yellow card and why didn’t you explain it better.
Look, it was a red card, that was our collective opinion on review.
But the great thing was Ben identified that before anybody had spoken to him.
That shows a real strength of character in him as an individual and what we are trying to promote in the referees.
Q: What are your thoughts about coaches complaining about decisions?
A: You have to have dialogue with all 14 coaches.
There are occasions that decisions happen on the pitch that they don’t agree with.
What has improved is they now have an avenue to challenge those decisions and to get a fair viewpoint of whether those decisions were right or wrong.
All the coaches have their questions and if the referees have made mistakes we hold our hands up.
We don’t hide behind Unions and stuff anymore, which is a really big step forward.
Q: In general terms, what happens to an official who makes a mistake?
A: One thing I hear a lot from coaches and fans is there’s no accountability in performance.
But the whole thing about having a performance management system is you can then have accountability.
There are some referees who refereed last season who aren’t refereeing this season.
There will be some referees who unfortunately won’t be refereeing next season.
That’s all down to the performance management system we have put in place.
So if a referee is consistently under-performing and not responding well to the interventions we try to put in place then ultimately we are going to have to push him to the side and bring someone else on.
We do the appointments based on the reviews we have in games.
When referees don’t perform well, they don’t get picked and they all know that.
So there is accountability in performance.
Q: Can you give me an idea on how much the league spends on officials?
A: We have significantly upped our investment back to the Unions for referees. We went from £300,000 last year to £1.1m this year.
We now pay match fees for all our appointments whereas in the past we only paid Unions for cross-border travel.
We also give each Union a one-off payment of £40,000 per referee in our main panel. That’s £500,000 that has gone back to the Unions to fund referee development.
This money isn’t to pay the salaries of the full-time referees, it’s to recompense the Unions for creating referees for our tournament. It goes back into referee development.
Q: One question fans frequently ask is why aren’t the touch judges involved more in policing the offside line?
A: It’s interesting, because they are involved in policing it. In every game, the referee is mic’d up to his touch judges.
If they see an offside, they should call it in. We work really hard on empowering our Assistant Referees.
We don’t want the referee just to lead it and the guys on the side to be mute. We want them to be active in that decision-making process.
We come down hard on our teams of three if we feel they haven’t refereed the space, the offsides very well in a game.
Q: Another bug-bear for fans is feeding at the scrum and why teams are allowed to get away with it…
A: We do want the ball put in straight to the scrum. It probably doesn’t happen as much as we want it to.
Why is it not happening? I don’t know the answer.
I would say from a referees point of view, the priority for the scrum is player safety.
We don’t want what happened to Matt Hampson ever happening again in our sport.
We want to protect the scrum because it’s a huge part of the game.
If we depower the scrum and don’t enable it to be a safe contest then we are in danger of losing it from the game, which would be an absolute disaster.
Q: Is there a drive to get more ex-players on your referees panel?
A: We have got Frank Murphy, who played more than 150 games for Munster, Leicester and Connacht, and Mike Adamson from Scotland, who played for Glasgow.
They are still learning but are probably able to bypass base knowledge of rugby because they played the game at a higher level.
Are they better referees? No, they are just as good as some of our other quality referees.
But they can get there quicker because they have played the game.
Q: If you are going to have all neutral officials, you inevitably need more from Scotland and Italy. Are you seeing them coming through?
Scotland haven’t had an international referee since Jim Fleming which is 20 years ago.
But they have got a fantastic manager now in Tappe Henning, from South Africa, who has created a really good structure.
They have worked very hard for the last five years and we are now starting to see some quality referees coming from Scotland.
So we’ve got Mike (Adamson), who is doing really well and is definitely in the mix to do some of the play-off games.
We’ve got Lloyd Linton, Ben Blain, Sam Grove-White and Keith Allen. So they’ve got some real talent coming through.
We’ve also got a couple of new referees coming through in Italy, so we are making good progress on that front.
Q: If you could change one law in rugby what would it be?
A: I would like to see a law that says at the scrum the defending No 9 has to go and stand behind his No 8’s feet.
Let’s top all the harassing of the attacking No 9, let him pass the ball and then we get the ball in play.
That would be my change.
This content was originally published here.