This is the long form of the published interview.
When I started out refereeing in 2002 I ran into Martin Dunne, who had been refereeing a few years at that stage and we’ve been friends ever since. Martin left Ireland in 2008 with his wife Tina and is currently President of the Chicagoland Area RFU Referee Society. I was delighted that I had a chance to catch up with him over the last few weeks.
The last game Martin refereed for Leinster was the Bingham Cup Plate final. Currently alongside being President, he is a Midwest Evaluator and assists with the training and education of the new referees. He was a World Rugby Educator, something he would like to get restored when USA Rugby gets back on track. He was also appointed as the Midwest representative to the USA Referee and Laws committee.
Martin got involved in CARFU Referees on arrival in Chicago. “I arrived in Chicago on September 23rd, 2008 and refereed my first game for CARFU a week later. It was more of an accidental appointment. The referee assigned to the game had a family emergency and I just happened to be there. Little did I know it was a derby game between the two main Chicago teams. “
How did it all begin? “I started my rugby career in Coolmine. The club had one referee, Ray Mooney. Ray would almost referee every single game in Coolmine that was not appointed to a Leinster Referee. His hard work was an inspiration, he encouraged me to take up the whistle. Kurt McQuilken came in one weekend to teach an introduction to mini-rugby. The final component of that class was how to referee mini-rugby. I was invited over to Seapoint to referee a mini-festival. After that I was put in touch with Owen Doyle who was starting up a new IRFU referee program with Dave Keane. Before I knew it, I found myself out in Clontarf for the visit of Trinity College in a J4 game. “
How long are you involved in refereeing now? I think you started a few years before me, back in the Arthur Anderson gear days “I remember watching the France v New Zealand Rugby World Cup semi-final in Old Belvedere after a referee course in 1999. I had probably been refereeing at least a year at that point, so probably 23 years since I took up the whistle.”
What is your role as president of CARFU Referee Society? “Like many referee presidents / administrators right now, I find myself trying to understand the return-to-play protocols following the pandemic. In Illinois for example, the health department currently requires referees and players to wear masks when playing. Keeping our referees safe is the top priority. I am concerned that we are going to see referees not return and as a result, we may not be able to meet the demands of the competitions. CARFU Referee Society elects a new President every other year. I am midway through my second term. CARFU is one of the strongest Midwest Refereeing Society and I am honoured to serve the membership in whatever manner they see fit.”
What is the biggest thing you have learned since you started ? “A visiting international referee once made a statement during a Leinster referee’s meeting that “No one comes to see you referee a match. They come to see the players play”. At the time this was a profound statement to me early in my refereeing career. Mind you the same referee also made a statement that the game he would be refereeing that weekend would not have a scrum for the first ten would be trouble if there was an early scrum. That Saturday, the first scrum did not get called until midway through the ninth minute of the match. I thought this was genius management of the game and was determined to try it the next day. On that Sunday I blew the whistle to start the clock, the fly half kicked off and the receiver dropped the ball. First scrum called twelve seconds into the game!”
Becoming a referee in Chicago is much the same as we see in Leinster. The USA Rugby education model follows World Rugby guidance. New referees take the Level 1 course. As the referee continues to develop, they move to Level 2. As a referee reaches the pinnacle of their development, the US has hosted a few level 3 referee courses. Martins says they are fortunate to have two World Rugby Educators based in Chicago which aids them in the hosting their own referee courses.
Chicago referees cover a large geographic region. If they send a referee to Peoria it is 3 hours each way. Most Chicago teams are within an hour’s drive. The next level up is the territorial union which in their case is the Midwest. The Midwest Union covers mainly Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Allegheny, and Indiana. Cincinnati, OH is 5 hours away. Rugby is not a main stream sport in the US. You often find yourself changing at the side of the pitch, and if you are not staying overnight in a city, be prepared to be driving back home in your match worn kit.
USA Rugby has been going through a reinvention over the past couple of years. The national panel as it was known was disbanded about four years ago and referees were assigned to panels based on the competition they were refereeing. These panels include the D1A collegiate rugby and Women’s Premier League. For club championships, USA Rugby would engage with the territorial unions for their top referees to go to work these games. Prior to the disbanding of the National Panel, CARFU was well represented with three of our referees on the panel. Martin says that currently they have approximately 60 referees in CARFU although they often find themselves short during the season. Two of the top referees in CARFU are female and they have eight others with enormous potential for the future.
What kind of education processes do you have in CARFU?
“On any given Saturday, which is when rugby is played in the US, generally teams will have an A-side match, followed by the B-side. We recommend that the B-side referee arrives early and runs touch for the A-side referee. We then ask our senior referees (A-side) to mentor the junior refs and provide feedback. This is in addition to referee coaching activities. Given the logistics involved, monthly meetings are not feasible. We host Zoom meetings to cover law refreshers. For the annual seminar, that is generally organized by the Midwest. It has workshops delivered by experienced referees and encompasses the AGM for the region.”
“This is one inconsistency in the law that always bothered me”, when I asked him about law changes. “If a restart goes over the ten-meter line and blows back, the kick is allowed. Same for a 22 drop. If a kick at goal crosses the bar and blows back before hitting the ground, like Felipe Contepomi’s penalty kick against Connacht in 2008, the kick at goal is awarded. But, if there is a kick to touch and the ball crosses the plane of touch and blows back into the field of play, it is play-on. When the law book was summarized a couple of years ago, the language covering the kick to touch which is blown back into the field of play is not that clear. If there was a consistency in the law, or if it was better written in the law book, it would remove the ambiguity for referees and players alike.”
Martins favorite thing about refereeing?. “When you are a player, you generally associate with your own team. You may have a drink with your opposing number or have the honour to represent your club on a select side where you get to meet some new mates. When you are a referee, you get to meet thirty new people every week. You might not remember everybody’s name, and resort to calling them “Mush”, but through refereeing you will develop relationships that go beyond your individual club.” I think Mush Sheridan can related to that!!
What would you say your most memorable game is? “The unfortunate thing about being a referee is that you tend to remember your bad games more vividly than your good. I remind people that these are the games that make us stronger as referees.
One game that I felt went well was a reply of a school’s game between Belvedere and Castleknock College. The original referee had been injured in a tie the previous weekend and I was asked to step in to referee at short notice. It was a warm evening with perfect rugby conditions on the top field in Castleknock. Right as I blew the final whistle the sun was setting and both sides were happy with the game. I cannot remember who won, although two of the players, Toner (Castleknock) or Healy (Belvedere), might know.”
His favorite referee? “When Ireland beat the Black Ferns at Rugby World Cup 2014, the game was refereed by American Leah Berard. During a match, the crowd only gets to see the referee on-the-day. What the crowd does not see is the person behind the whistle, the training, the studying, the personal sacrifices. From a local referee in 2010, to international 7s and then on to full internationals, Leah has refereed Six Nations matches and at the Women’s World Cup, including the Women’s World Cup 7s final in 2013. As someone who watched Leah take each step in her refereeing career, she continually raised the bar and set a standard for future referees to aspire to.”
What advice would you give to someone taking up refereeing? “If you are nervous about refereeing, run touch for a junior league match. The referee would appreciate the help and it will give you an opportunity to make decisions that influence the game. When registering for any referee course in the US, you have to have an up-to-date Rugby Ready certificate (https://rugbyready.worldrugby.org/) which would start you on the road to gaining law knowledge. The World Rugby Laws site also has a quiz which you can use to brush up on how well you know your stuff. “
“To thine own self be true (Hamlet, Act I, Scene III).” What will help you improve?” There is only one person who knows what will make someone better as a referee. Themselves. If you want to head to the pub each night and grab a takeaway on the way home, do not anticipate making it to the AIL. You could also be the quickest person on the pitch, and only have seventy minutes of stamina. It is hard for someone to hear their faults, and that is why the job of the referee coach/evaluator is often a difficult job to do, although referees need to remember that it is the truth. Like when a player struggles, if their club is invested in them, they will help them get better. The same is true for referees. There are resources available to you to be the referee you want to be. You just need to know who you want to be!
Did you make it to Soldier field for the All Blacks game? “Unlike every Munster fan who will tell you they were in Thomond in 1978, even if it was before they were born, I was in Soldier Field on November 5, 2016. Chicago was the place to be that week. The Chicago Cubs had just won their first World Series in 108 years and it was only fitting that the next weekend, Ireland toppled their 111 year wait for victory over New Zealand. “
Do we need an exchange between Leinster and Chicago? “I would love the opportunity to bring Leinster referees to Chicago. We tried setting something up eight years ago and unfortunately the insurance issues came into play. If we can get past this issue, in a post-Covid world, Leinster referees would be more than welcome. “
Thanks to Martin for his time, it was great to catch up and great to hear about refereeing in the US. We wish Martin well in his final year as President. There is more to this Q&A over at leinsterrugbyreferees.ie