- RFU referee reflects on career so far and looks forward to first Heineken Cup appointment
- “There’s a perception sometimes that referees aren’t accountable. That’s totally wrong.” – Luke Pearce
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Ahead of refereeing his maiden Heineken Cup match on Friday evening between Toulouse v Zebre, RFU ref Luke Pearce spoke to RFU news writer Charlie Morgan about his journey from the grassroots to the upper echelons of the game, but he insists that there's still more to come.
It is a matter of minutes since Luke Pearce discovered, via an email from the IRB, that he will be refereeing the intriguing international between Russia and Japan this November – his first Test match.
But as the fresh-faced 25 year-old invites me to peer at his laptop, there isn’t a hint of smugness. In fact, Pearce is so immersed in an animated description of his domestic duties that this piece of career-changing news seems barely acknowledged.
“Look,” he says, pointing to the screen. “I do this after every Aviva Premiership game while watching my performance back. It normally takes about three hours.”
Pearce is not exaggerating. The document open on his monitor lists every decision he made during Saracens’ win over London Wasps at Allianz Park on Saturday, as well as a brief evaluation. Each is garishly colour-coded according to whether either assistant or the television match official contributed to the call. Vast detail already – but that is merely the foundation.
Also listed are any ‘non-decisions’ – offences Pearce believes he missed – which are counted up along with self-professed ‘errors’ to give half-time and full-time totals. In the often foggy world of rugby’s law interpretations, these figures are stark components of a self-appraisal which is pored over by Tony Spreadbury, acting head of professional referee development at the RFU.
“In our game, you’ve got to be honest,” Pearce adds in a forthright tone perfectly attuned to his occupation. “There’s a perception sometimes that referees hide behind closed doors and aren’t accountable. That’s totally wrong.
“I am held to account every Monday when I look over my game from the weekend with Spreaders. Those figures are in front of us to show how well the games have gone. The scrums are reviewed in depth as well.
“If I make mistakes over and over again, I’ll be dropped and won’t referee again in the Premiership. We have a massive responsibility to get things right. If we don’t, there are repercussions.”
With the calm but unerring authority he might use on the field to inform captains that their team’s errant breakdown behaviour is close to earning a yellow card, Pearce speaks proudly about a system that identified his potential and shaped him into an assured operator.
Encouraged by his father Andrew – a former referee still carrying out touch-judge duties in the Premiership – Pearce initially combined playing with officiating at Exeter College. Progression from there has been rapid. An apprenticeship in the National Leagues and the Championship gave way to stints on the HSBC Sevens World Series and at this summer’s Junior World Championship in France – he whistled a barnstorming semi final between Wales and South Africa.
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On Friday evening, Pearce heads back over The Channel to the Stade Ernest Wallon for his Heineken Cup debut, taking charge of Toulouse’s opener against Italian outfit Zebre. It is another step towards a rounded rugby education – one that is instilling a huge degree of pragmatism. Although Pearce is excited by another step up and has been taking French lessons with the six other full-time referees employed by the RFU (a cohort he joined prior to the 2010/11 season), he won’t be regurgitating Gallic vocabulary for the sake of it.
“You need to be careful when you have two different nations,” he smiles. “You can’t communicate well with one team and badly with the other. I know next to no Italian.
“We are lucky as English speakers – rugby is predominantly spoken in our language. Now, most teams have at least one or two, sometimes nine or ten, players who are fluent.”
The collective voice is a constant of our conversation. When Pearce is finally coaxed into to speaking about his international bow this autumn, he stresses that three colleagues – JP Doyle, Greg Garner and Wayne Barnes – have also been selected by the IRB. As a workforce, the RFU full-timers are tight-knit. Later in the day, Pearce is joining Doyle for one of the five fitness sessions they get through every week, just one facet of the sturdy support network.
Pearce’s tender age is clearly no barrier to competence or confidence. He cringes at the word “fast-tracked”, pointing out that he spent at least a year at every level and that he has “never refereed a game I didn’t feel comfortable in.” Even so, his vocation inherently lends itself to isolation. If mistakes do happen, that can quickly turn to loneliness.
Remembering Saracens 28-23 win over London Welsh last season – when he ended the game incorrectly on an incomplete scrum – Pearce is more philosophical. He apologised to the Exiles and returned to his changing room at the Kassam Stadium feeling awful, but was immediately buoyed on finding a barrage of reassuring text messages. A decidedly more anxious experience in years gone by has evidently given him some perspective.
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Back in 2009, a teenage Pearce awarded three penalty tries to Moseley in a fiery West Midlands derby at Coventry’s Butts Park Arena. Moseley won 28-25. In the tunnel afterwards, a Coventry fan attempted to punch the young official.
“It was the biggest learning curve of my career so far,” Pearce asserts. “I gave three penalty tries – two were accurate, one wasn’t – and it won the away team a local derby. You are always going to be criticised there.
“What happened post-match got dealt with and we moved on, but it did develop me as a person. All refereeing is about gaining experience of being wrong, so next time you are in that situation you think ‘You know what? I’m not going to do that again.’ How you come back from mistakes is very important.
“It would have been quite easy for me to think ‘What the hell am I doing this for? All my friends are in the pub drinking.’ I chose not to jack it in and it has been a case of taking two steps back to take three forwards.”
Refereeing is a fiercely contentious an area for the rugby public, as it is for fans of most sports. However, at the end of Saturday’s phenomenal Test between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park – which ended 38-27 to the All Blacks and was saturated with sublime attacking play – Welshman Nigel Owens was universally heralded. In fact, social media has almost combusted with compliments. And it hasn’t been lost on Pearce.
“Seeing praise of a referee in one of the biggest games of the year really does wonders,” he smiles. “The key thing is that the game was superb – you had two teams with a very high skill levels and there were over 60 points. Nigel facilitated that really well.
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“The way referees have been drawn into things in recent times has been only to be highlighted negatively when things have gone wrong. It sounds like a cliché but we go into games hoping we aren’t mentioned afterwards – if that happens, generally there has been nothing controversial and your name won’t be in the press.
“Any praise is brilliant – it’s great for young refs to see that it isn’t just a case of officials getting slated week-in, week-out. We don’t want to go down the route that football went down a few years ago of just criticising officials. Twitter makes it very easy to jump on the bandwagon.”
Pearce’s transparency on delicate issues and comfort in the inevitability of human error – “we aren’t going to go through a season without making a controversial call” – illustrates impressive poise. Finishing with a brief, almost reluctant reflection on what he has achieved thus far, there is zero sense of complacency or back-patting.
“[Refereeing] isn’t a skill everyone possesses initially, but you certainly have more of a capacity to deal with player behaviour than you might think,” he ponders.
“You’ve got to have a personality to take flak if it comes your way, but also to be able to manage people. We are there to make decisions, but we aren’t policemen who say ‘right, wrong, right, wrong’.
“I still have to ensure I give accurate performances. If I didn’t do that and if I don’t do that now, I don’t get the games in the future. That doesn’t change whether you are 18 or 52. There’s no use me getting international appointments now and refereeing terribly in the Heineken Cup this weekend.”
If mind-set has anything to do with it, that isn’t very likely at all.
If you're interested in refereeing, head to rfu.com/referee.