Referees Corner – Issue 4 – Leinster v Cardiff

December 14, 2020 in News

I started out my refereeing career in 2001 and as I moved through the ranks at a steady pace, a young Sean Gallagher joined a few years later and shot by me. One of Ireland and Leinsters finest referees, I caught up with him last week, in between Pro 14 games, to try and understand where my career took a wrong turn and to see how he is getting on in his role as a full time professional referee in the IRFU.

Sean, how long are you refereeing now and what made you decide to take up the whistle all those years ago?


I started refereeing in October 2005. I returned to Navan Rugby Club one afternoon, having played a match against Bective Rangers in Donnybrook. The Thirds were due to play a match against Country Carlow, but received a call to say the referee’s car had broken down and he couldn’t make it. The coaches were trying to find a replacement referee and I reluctantly agreed to take up the whistle. I really enjoyed the experience and some of the senior referees in the club persuaded me to give it a go that season. I’m still at it almost 16 years on!


What is your day to day role in the IRFU as a full time professional referee?


I work as a High Performance Referee in the IRFU. There are four others in Ireland – Andy Brace, George Clancy, Joy Neville and Frank Murphy. We represent the IRFU in professional game matches across the world – including World Rugby, EPCR and Pro 14 competitions. I’m also the Referee Development Manager in Leinster Rugby and work to educate and develop the 200 domestic game referees in the province.


What does your average day look like?


I get up early and train in the IRFU High Performance Centre in Abbotstown. After that it depends on the day of the week. Monday and Tuesday involves reviewing the matches from the previous weekend. Wednesday is our rest day. Thursday is spent preparing for the upcoming matches that weekend. Friday, Saturday and Sunday includes travel and matchday. I spend three or four hours each day working with the Leinster Rugby Referees in my Referee Development Manager role.


What is your training regime like and how does this fit around your working day?


We’re fortunate that training is built into our working day – and it’s one of the most important parts of our role. The game is faster now than ever. There’s more to it than looking physically fit – referees need to make accurate decisions, in high pressure situations, under fatigue. The IRFU provides us with access to strength and conditioning coaches who monitor our fitness. I do two strength sessions in the gym, one speed session on the pitch and a high intensity running session each week.


How has becoming or turning to a full time role changed your refereeing?


I was a secondary school teacher prior to becoming a professional referee. I wouldn’t say my approach to refereeing has changed, but being able to focus solely on refereeing makes a huge difference. I’m now able to spend more time preparing and reviewing matches which results in stronger performances on the pitch.


What kind of analysis do you do after games?


We can download the game immediately after the final whistle. I would normally leave it until Monday and go through the match with a fresh set of eyes. My coach is Johnny Lacey and we complete a detailed review in the afternoon to get his perspective. Tuesday is usually group review day where all of the professional referees get together to do a wider analysis of all the games that took place the previous weekend. I’m a firm believer that preparation is key –  and always ensure that I’m fully prepared for matches which should mean you’ll have less to review the following week.


What is your favourite thing about refereeing?


This might seem like a strange answer because refereeing is probably seen as a solitary job – but my favourite part of it is the teamwork involved. During the week, the professional referees work with Dudley Phillips (IRFU Head of Referees) and Johnny Lacey (IRFU Referee Coach) to review our performances to ensure we’re always improving. Then at the weekend we work together as a team of four to referee the match – if we’re not in the middle ourselves we’re supporting each other as assistant referees and television match officials. There’s a huge element of teamwork involved.


What is the most memorable game you have refereed so far?


It’s difficult to pick one because a lot of games stand out. I refereed the Leinster Senior Schools Cup Final in 2013 between Blackrock and St Michael’s. I’m often reminded of that game because a lot of the players from that match play for professional teams now – the likes of Garry Ringrose, Jeremy Loughman, Nick Timoney, Oliver Jager, Cian Kelleher, Ross Byrne, Nick Mc Carthy, Ross Molony, James Ryan and Josh Murphy. It’s great to say you refereed those talented players when they were younger.


What is your pre – match routine like and should all referees have a defined routine ?


You need to do whatever prepares you mentally and physically for the game and that differs for each referee. I like to be in the stadium 90 minutes before kick-off. I meet the teams and get any formalities out of the way early. I then go back to the changing room, put on some music, and stretch for a while. It’s important to do some movement and speed work on the pitch too. Then it’s back to the changing room for the broadcaster to put the communications equipment on and you’re ready to go.


Finally, what will make one improve as a referee?


There are two simple ways to improve as a referee. Firstly, watch our top referees in the professional game and see what they are doing. Look at their positioning, movement and communication, as well as their technical decision making. Secondly, get out on the pitch and referee as many games as possible. The best way to learn is through experience.


Seans advice to anyone thinking about taking up the whistle – give it a go.

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