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    5. Wayne Barnes: I loved being a rugby referee, but I ..


    Wayne Barnes: I loved being a rugby referee, but I might have lost my nut…

    Wayne Barnes is “willing to explain his decisions and able to gain the trust of players.” Photo: Joshua Tarn

    Wayne Barnes meets me in the chic, subdued eighth-floor office of a leading City law firm where he works as a criminal lawyer: offices that stand in stark contrast to the muddy pitches of huge stadiums filled with roaring rugby fans, where he spent so much time. many of his Saturdays over the past two decades.

    And today, his tall, slender man is dressed not in his usual judge's uniform, but in a tailored dark blue suit and a crisp white shirt with cufflinks.

    First of all, I want to discuss with him one question: why anyone does a sane person want to be a senior rugby referee?

    Why would anyone want to take responsibility for what they do? In his new autobiography, Throwing the Book, he describes “organized chaos”, a fast-paced game with fiendishly complex rules, knowing that one wrong call could not only ruin the entire match, but also incur the wrath – or worse – of 80 000 people. heated fans in the cauldron of the stadium, and millions more watching live on television

    There can be no glory here: for a rugby referee, the definition of “success” is finishing the match unnoticed.

    “That's a good question,” laughs Barnes when I ask him the question, and it's especially pertinent because shortly before our interview he refereed rugby's premier spectacle, the World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand in Paris, and suffered the consequences.< /p>

    This match was Barnes's last before retiring at the age of 44. By rights, it should have crowned the judge’s brilliant career.

    In the event he red carded Sam Cane, the All Blacks captain, who became the first player ever sent off in a final. He bowled out three other players, including Siya Kolisi, the South African captain, and prevented New Zealand's Aaron Smith from knocking down a few moves earlier. The Springboks won by one point, 12-11.

    Wayne Barnes red carded for All Blacks captain Sam Cane in his final match as a referee. Photo: David Ramos/World Rugby via Getty Images

    Barnes defends all those decisions that were made with the help of the telematch official (TMO). He says his assistant referees and managers have since reviewed and approved them.

    He adds that Kane, Smith and the other New Zealand players thanked him very kindly after the game and did not complain. Most independent commentators thought he played a good match, with World Rugby calling his team's performance “outstanding”.

    But the abuse on social media began almost immediately. “There were death threats, threats against children, threats against Polly [his wife], threats against me,” Barnes says. The messages, which contained double-digit numbers, said: “We will burn your house down.” We'll cut your throat. We know where your children are.” There were threats of sexual violence.

    Polly posted a personal message on Instagram, which ended up in the press. “What a disgusting atmosphere at the Stade de France. It's just a game, damn it,” she wrote. “See you, Rugby World Cup.” I won’t miss you or the death threats.”

    Barnes reported the abuse to police. World Rugby, the sport's governing body, hired a data company to try to trace the senders. “I think as a referee you get used to it, but you don’t have to get used to it,” Barnes says. “But when people take it to the next level by threatening violence against your wife and children, it's like, how can you even think that's right?”

    The insults were offset by numerous messages of support. what he received from players and coaches all over the world, but it was a sad way for a man who came from the humblest of backgrounds to become the best referee in the world to go.

    Barnes grew up on a council estate in Brim, an old mining village in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. His father was a truck driver, his mother worked in a pool club, and his parents separated when he was young. He went to the local comprehensive school, from which his older brother was expelled for throwing his desk at the deputy principal.

    Welsh player George North speaks to Barnes during a game at the Stade de France. Photo: Colorsport/Shutterstock

    The family didn't have much money. Barnes was 13 years old when he first visited London, and 20 years old before he flew on an airplane. But he had rugby and started playing when he was six years old. Although he was, by his own admission, “sucks.”

    At the age of 15, I injured my knee. A friend of his father suggested he take up refereeing instead. His first game was a Bream Third XV against Berry Hill Wappers. He describes the experience as “30 people running around telling me what to do.”

    Despite this, he found that he enjoyed the “theatrics” of the job (he also appeared in local pantomimes from the age of seven ) and the fact that he was then given £5 and several bottles of beer. He won a scholarship to study at nearby Monmouth State School, but continued to referee on weekends.

    He went to the University of East Anglia to study law, inspired by a visit to the magistrates' court when he was 14 years old. There he played rugby every Wednesday and refereed every weekend.

    By the age of 21, while simultaneously starting a legal career, he was ranked among the top 50 judges in England. Three years after that he refereed his first Premier League game, Bath against Rotherham, where he had to endure a punch, a streaker and a fan passing out from a heart attack on the stand.

    At 25, He became England's youngest ever elite referee and was given a yellow card by Martin Johnson, who had recently won the World Cup as England captain. “Sorry, sir,” he muttered. “That’s the only damn decision you’ve made,” retorted the rugby colossus as he left the field.

    Before everyone match Wayne Barnes read a piece of paper with the words: “You are not here to be popular.” Photo: Xavier Lane/Getty

    Over the next two decades, Barnes broke many records. He refereed 111 international matches and officiated at no fewer than 17 Six Nations tournaments and five World Cups – more than anyone else in history. He has officiated 273 Premier League matches, 10 Premier League finals and three European Cup finals.

    He officiated the longest test match in history, France v Wales in the 2017 Six Nations, which lasted for a full 20 minutes amid a succession of penalties, dubious substitutions and alleged bites.

    He was the first referee to send off a player in a Premier League final at Twickenham – Northampton captain Dylan Hartley. In another match, he sent off Gloucester's Nick Wood after 73 seconds, the second fastest red card in Premier League history. He once refereed an entire game – London French v Kilburn Cosmos – without giving a single penalty, and received the man of the match award.

    During all this time he used only one whistle (“they’ll clean it now”). and again to get rid of the mucus,” he chuckles) and one coin toss (a penny with Queen Victoria’s face on it).

    He achieved success through careful preparation, a willingness to explain his decisions and the ability to gain trust players. Before every match, he would read a piece of paper that said “You're not here to be popular” and write “Reset” on his hand to remind him not to let unexpected incidents during a game cloud his judgement.

    < p>It's no wonder Barnes waxes lyrical about how rugby has allowed him to travel to every continent, meet great people, make great friends, have amazing experiences and watch the world's greatest athletes perform before his eyes.


    He said he often had to “pinch” himself. He suffers from “imposter syndrome.” The dust jacket of his autobiography calls the book a “love letter” to the sport that gave him so much, but it is certainly not an uncritical letter.

    Wayne Barnes, pictured here speaking to Prince Harry during England rugby training at Twickenham in 2017, has often had to 'pinch himself' during his career. Photo: Glyn Kirke/AFP via Getty Images

    Its pages, for example, illustrate the rise in abuse of referees, sometimes instigated by international coaches and amplified by social media.

    In 2007, for example, he missed a crucial forward pass as France narrowly beat the All Blacks. in the quarter-finals of the World Championships in Cardiff. Messages appeared on social media, then still in its infancy, saying, “Wayne Barnes must die.” He was voted the third most hated man in New Zealand after Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

    His effigy was burned in Christchurch and another was placed in a urinal in Queenstown. A few years later, Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach, almost accused him of match-fixing in his memoirs.

    In 2022, he refereed a match in which France defeated South Africa 30–26. Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks coach, then posted a video on social media of the decisions he believed Barnes had made wrong. In no time, he and Polly began receiving threatening messages similar to the ones he would receive after the World Cup final last month. Barnes called Erasmus's behavior “inexcusable” and said he “wanted to quit on the spot.”

    His wife's anger and frustration made me question why I was doing a job that brought suffering and pain to my family. '. At England's subsequent match against South Africa at Twickenham, Barnes felt obliged to cancel a proposed half-time appearance to celebrate his 100th Test match, lest his family hear “a terrible comment about their father or husband from a disgruntled South African fan”. /p>

    He cites other times he was besieged in the locker room, smuggled out of the stadium in an ambulance, or attacked by angry fans in bars.

    Barnes shows a red card to South Africa's Pieter-Steph du Toit during the 2022 match between France and South Africa in Marseille. Photo: Clement Maudo/Gallo Images/Getty Images

    Barnes is now pushing for governments, tech companies and rugby authorities to take much tougher action to identify and punish those who go beyond legitimate criticism into outright abuse and threatening behavior. He says coaches who encourage such abuse should be punished.

    There are other aspects of the modern game that he doesn't like. He approves of TMOs as long as they don't intervene too often, saying replays make the referee's life much easier. He also favors having microphones for referees so they can explain their decisions to players and spectators.

    But he says referees are constantly torn between wanting to keep the game going to make it more interesting and knowing that coaches will scold them and give marks to the evaluators if they cannot assign a penalty for each violation.

    “What are we trying to achieve?” – he writes in the book. “Do we referees want to get every detail right, or do we want to make the sport as popular as possible by giving the fans what they want, which is fast-paced play?”

    He complains that such organizations like World Rugby do not always support referees when they are criticized. He believes referees are “undervalued” and underpaid, “given the scrutiny they receive and the abuse they suffer”: he won't say how much he earns, but it's “half of what the average Premier League player earns.” league.”

    He complains that judges receive too little information about where they will judge next week or next month, “so it's impossible to plan for summer vacations, anniversaries, birthdays, friends.”

    Rugby referees Wayne Barnes, Matthew Carley, Tom Foley, Brian McNeice, Ben Whitehouse, Mathieu Raynal, Luke Pearce, Jaco Peiper, Andrew Brace, Angus Gardner and Carl Dixon at the 2023 World Rugby Awards. Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

    He seems particularly irritated by former referees appearing on live commentary panels and criticizing refereeing decisions. “It always surprises me that people who know how difficult this work is criticize what we do,” he says pointedly.

    All of this brings me back to my original question: why would anyone want to be an executive? – rugby referee? Barnes never gives me the right answer other than, “I love this role.” I like to take on a challenge.” However, he admits that judges tend to be “a little different” and that he can get “confused.”

    Barnes has now given his red and yellow cards to his six-year-old son Beau. “He runs around the house giving his sister [Juno, nine] red or yellow cards,” he laughs. All the other mementos of his long career – photographs, framed shirts, caps, balls – were relegated to the attic of his Twickenham home. “All my memories are in my head,” he says.

    He is very happy to spend more time at home. According to him, refereeing “becomes a burden on the family.” “The sacrifices the children and Polly made to keep me away put a lot of pressure on them.”

    As well as raising his children, Polly, whom he first met at school in Brim, is a sports marketer and co-founder of the Women's Rugby Association. He is also happy to work full time at his law firm, Squire Patton Boggs, where he is a partner and defends corporations and individuals under investigation for possible white collar crimes.

    Until now he had to juggle his two careers, combining legal work with training at Twickenham every Monday and Tuesday and long trips to places such as New Zealand, Australia, Argentina or South Africa. During the World Championships this fall in France, while most of the other judges were on vacation, he worked every Wednesday in his firm's Paris office.

    He is adamant that he was not forced to resign over abuse: he says he would have resigned after the 2019 World Cup if he had officiated the final as planned, but on this occasion he was unable to do so do, as one of the participating teams was England.

    Barnes hopes to spend more time with his family and focus on his legal career . Photo: Joshua Tarn

    He is also adamant that he will never judge again, although he admits he will miss the excitement and adrenaline rush. “If you could take me here and there and give me a tablet that meant I didn't have to do all the fitness work, I'd probably stick with it,” he says.

    But he will continue to fight for the rights and interests of judges. In 2022, he and others founded the International Organization of Rugby Match Officials to support them on and off the field and to give them a voice in the sport's decision-making bodies.

    Barnes wants to see judges had ready access to psychologists and consultants, for example. “We all know that men are pretty average when it comes to talking about their feelings and mental health, so I can imagine that in one of the most stressful situations, standing in front of 80,000 people, having someone to talk it through with is invaluable.” , he says.

    He will also play rugby again – back at Bream, where it all began. Over the past decade he has organized an annual charity match there, inviting former professionals and raising around £150,000 for breast cancer research. “You can guarantee the ball will hit me right from the start and everyone will try to hit me,” he laughs. And now he won't be able to send them away again.

    Throwing the Book: The Struggles and Crimes of a Rugby Referee by Wayne Barnes (Constable, £25) is out now

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