World-renowned referee Romain Poite has officiated in every major tournament in the world and been involved in of the sport’s biggest games. In an exclusive interview, Pundit Arena’s Paul Wassell caught up with him to talk about the changing nature of the job, what he loves about refereeing and how relationships between referees and fans, players and coaches are all radically altering.
With bile, vitriol and acerbic insults being thrown around by sections of so-called fans on social media after some controversial decisions made in the second test between Ireland and New Zealand in Dublin, the changing relationship between referees and the people that watch them has reared its head to the fore once more.
Romain Poite, though, lets those kind of comments fly.
“No, I don’t read social media. I know I will be judged by my superiors, you know the kind of head coaches of referees, I prefer to be judged by people who know their rugby and refereeing.
“Many people ask me about the refereeing in the final in the Rugby World Cup final in 2011. I was in the stands and I was wearing a French jersey. When you’re in this position you can’t talk about the refereeing because you are passionate and you close your eyes to many things. You need to know what are the laws and the job of a referee and then you can talk about the refereeing. For me, if I don’t practice something then I don’t judge the people that do.”
It’s so easy to forget that referees are human beings doing an incredibly difficult job in challenging circumstances under a tremendous, almost crushing amount of pressure. Poite, like every other referee, got into it because of his passion for the sport.
“My father was involved in the committee and I was playing at our local club and I wanted to improve my knowledge of rugby and to give back to rugby. Like everyone else I love rugby and just like any player I like to be involved in the sport but just in a different way.”
The Frenchman also makes it clear that it’s not right to put professional referees on a pedestal compare to everyone.
“It’s not right to say professional rugby referees are better than the other guys. Becoming a referee doesn’t change the reality, we are human and we do make mistakes like everyone else, but professionals have more time to work on our skills and improve our knowledge of the game.”
He does realise, however, that being a test referee comes with a significant amount of responsibility to develop as an individual.
“We have to be the best in the world, so it’s about fitness and video analysis, but you have to focus on your own job. It’s great for us because as we’re full time we get to work on our game; you can better manage your personal life, your job life and your rugby life.”
Speaking to Poite about his preparations for both club and international games, he reveals exactly the kind of work referees do to ensure they are the best adjudicators of the game acros the globe.
“I have the same preparation and the same attention for club games and international games, to respect everybody in the same way. In international rugby you have to be faster and you have to be prepared for a high level of rugby, and in the week before any game we watch video footage from other games with the teams involved to make sure we make the right decision the next Saturday.
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“The refereeing team meet the night before a game to start team building and we have a meal together with the officials from the host country of a match.
“The morning of a match is very relaxed, everyone has their own way of preparing but the team have breakfast together and there is a short meeting about the outcomes of the game and what I want to get from my assistant referees. On the other side when I am an assistant referee I ask the referee questions as well. It’s just to seal our relationships before a game.
“After that it’s very relaxed, so you can spend time with your family or go for a walk, just to distract from the pressure and not care too much about it. There’s the journey to the stadium but after that it’s relaxing and it’s about enjoying being together as a team.”
Despite being involved in hundreds of matches across his career, Poite has a clear favourite:
“I have lots of good memories, but the best one is probably the Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Northampton in 2011 because it was a great game with two different halves and an amazing finish from Leinster after Northampton led by such a big score. It was a great memory, but also the stadium as well. For any referee the Millennium Stadium is one of the best places to play a rugby game.”
Poite also spoke about the biggest challenges he feels he faces on the pitch when he is the man in the middle.
“We have two big areas to referee that come often during a game and it is so important to get the correct decision. It’s about the breakdown area and the scrum, because with the breakdown there are about 150 to 200 different aspects of the laws relating to it, so it’s a lot to make a decision, but we do our best to be correct every time.
“The scrum is the second area where we have many problems because we rely on the players to make a very good scrum. At international level it’s not easier but the approach to scrums tends to be more confident and the players at that level know that discipline in the scrum is very important.
“But every time we make a decision, when you review the decision it’s always very difficult to have the solution for the scrum and sometimes we are under a lot of pressure from the top to get everything right, but it is very difficult as an individual to observe 16 players. It’s probably the hardest area to referee.”
And that’s what so many people tend to forget. One person has the responsibility of trying to watch 30 players at all times and it’s a near impossible task.
The pressure on referees has rocketed since the advent of professionalism in the sport, and Poite points out that the job of a referee has now changed beyond recognition since the amateur days.
“For a long time yes, the relationships and the approaches are very different [from coaches and players] to referees, simply because of the money and the investment. Pressure comes from coaches and chairmen, it’s not just sport now. We need to be aware it’s business as well. When you put money into the system you change the relationship between referees and everyone else.”
Perhaps it is time for all of us to reflect on our relationship with the men and women across the globe that put their hearts and souls into the job they love because of their passion for rugby. That seems to have been forgotten somewhere down the line.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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