CARVER Coaching & Performance Newsletter

Hi, Paul here,

I hope this finds you well. This week’s theme is…


I had originally planned for a different newsletter this week. My plan was to move away from the CARVER Essay and go with a CARVER Insight which I had been mulling over the past few weeks. However, last week’s newsletter garnered much comment and response, and so I thought I’d explore the general theme of fair play, respect and refereeing a little further. The feedback I received from readers and commenters showed that the vast majority of us yearn for our sports to be grounded in a two-way mutual respect between the players and coaches on one side, and the refereeing officials on the other. However, the harsh reality is that many of our sports have evolved to a dysfunctional, us versus them, mentality. As with many of life’s disappointments and challenges, we often end up asking ourselves: ‘How did it end up like this?’

The sport of rugby appears different. The players, coaches and referees appear to work from a point of deep respect for one another. As a non-rugby person I feel there is much we can learn from the sport regarding how both players and coaches interact with the referee, and indeed vice versa. Below, Johnny Lacey will to give us an insight, which I trust will prove both of interest and use to you.


This essay is an extract from Be the Best You Can Be in Sport- A Book for Irish Youth.

Johnny Lacey is the IRFU High Performance Referee Coach and Talent ID Manager. Now retired from refereeing at professional level, he refereed the 2013 Pro12 Grand Final, as well as the 2015–16 and 2016–17 European Rugby Challenge Cup Finals. He also refereed at: Six Nations Championship, Rugby Championship and Rugby World Cup level.

Rugby is a physically brutal sport. Although the object of the game is simply to place the ball in the opposition’s scoring zone, it is nonetheless an extremely complex and multifaceted sport. There are no rules in rugby, but laws…and plenty of them. Rules are defined-black and white, whereas laws are there to be interpreted in order to keep the game flowing. With this said, it must be noted that where a law is infringed, and this has a material effect on the game, it must be penalised. Rugby is a sport which has a great tradition in the laws of the game.

In rugby, a code of ethics is traditionally instilled in its participants from the very beginning. Players, coaches and referees must all learn to live by the core values of the game. The IRFU Spirit of Rugby lists: Respect, Integrity, Inclusivity, Fun and Excellence as its core values. It is becoming of all associated with the game, to turn these words into tangible and obvious actions and behaviours. As a rapidly expanding sport in this country, it is the duty of rugby traditionalists to pass on these values to newcomers to our game, and ensure they are both upheld and reinforced.

In rugby, the relationship between the player and the referee is critical to ensure the game is fair and safe, and provides for a good spectacle. This relationship is a two-way street. The game is in the care of all participants. The team is represented on the field of play by its captain and they are entitled to speak to the referee when appropriate. Articulate use of language, tone of voice and general demeanour from both sides enhance this captain/ referee relationship, and so the game is improved. In professional rugby, the captain now uses the captain/ referee relationship as a ‘pressure tool’ to put on the referee, and if done so in the correct manner, this is perfectly ok.

Rugby Law states that the referee’s role is paramount for the safety of the players on the field. As a result of this, it has evolved that communication between all parties has become central to the refereeing process. In domestic rugby at all levels, the referee will enter the team dressing room pregame to check the legality of studs and discuss various issues with coaches and players such as what they might want from the front rows around the scrum, etc. The coach is also entitled to interact with the referee pre-game where they can discuss concerns about elements of the opposition’s style of play. In professional rugby, this line of communication to the referee is open in the week approaching a game and can be via phone or email. At international level, all parties meet the day before the game. An example of an interaction in this scenario would be that the coach may express concerns about the legality of a certain element of the opposition’s play and may ask for the referee’s thoughts on this, or for it to be clarified. The coach may reinforce their position through the use of video evidence, and it is up to the referee to draw their own conclusion.

Pre-game video analysis on the part of the referee has become commonplace. In the IRFU at professional level, our referees are extremely well prepared ahead of the game. They will have established what type of attack and defence the teams play and any relevant statistics around trends in technical penalties, etc. As a group of referees, we are improving our understanding of the ‘Rugby DNA’ of each team and this can inform and influence our on-field positioning, allowing us to place ourselves in the optimal position to make the correct call. We are increasingly better prepared, and this work can also inform our pre-game interactions with the team coach and captain.

In professional rugby, the coach is not allowed in the technical zone. Only medics and water carriers are allowed here. There may be some scope for the coach to get a message to the referee through these people and, if on investigation, the message proves accurate the referee will often respect it. Alternatively, if the information provided proves inaccurate, this may affect any further potential interactions between the two.

In all successful player/ coach- referee interactions, the governing principle is the improvement of the game. There can be no games without players or referees. This is also almost always true of the coach. Rugby is a sport that aims to provide a positive disposition in the interactions between all parties. This is grounded in respect for the laws and can only be upheld through open and positive communication. It is better for all involved if we treat each other fairly and get along.

Yours in Sport,

Johnny Lacey.

See you next week with an overdue CARVER Insight,


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