It's Thursday, June 16 and I've just roused myself to head to breakfast. Yesterday was matchday 2 here at the Nations Cup, in Bucharest, Romania. After breakfast, we will have a match officials meeting to go over any and all issues from yesterday's matches. All were close affairs, with Georgia pipping Argentina A 14-13; Romania coming up just short (despite some good opportunities late in the match) against the SA Kings (which is actually the regional franchise from the South-Eastern Cape and in 2013 will be playing in the Super Rubgy competition, replacing the lowest placed of the current SA franchises from next season); and lastly Namibia putting together a much-improved performance to beat Portugal 29-23. All three matches were well-contested and fast-paced in near-perfect conditions.
I arrived last Wednesday afternoon, and was picked up from the airport, along with Andrew Small (RFU referee originally from New Zealand) and Bertie Smith (Match Official Manager) by two members of the Romanian Rugby Federation. A 20-minute drive into Bucharest found us at the Ramada Plaza hotel which is only a 10-15 minute walk from the Stadium. After a little time to settle in, we headed out for dinner, meeting up with the rest of the crew, which include two French referees, Jerome Garces and Pascal Gauzeres, and an Assistant Referee from Spain, Inigo Atorrasagasti. There are also two ARs from the Romanian Federation, Vlad Iordechescu and Horatiu Bargaunas. The hosts have been extraordinary in making us feel welcome and ensuring we have everything we need. The whole team of match officials has gelled well throughout the last week, despite the language differences (English, French, Spannish, Kiwi, Irish!!). As you can imagine, we all want to enjoy ourselves while at the same time ensuring there are top-notch, professional performances on the field.
The quality of rugby so far has been very good overall. The speed of the play is generally much higher than anything we see in Canada, except for maybe an exceptionally good game in the Canadian Rugby Championship. In particular, the speed at which players arrive and contest the ball at the breakdown means the decision-making of the referee must be very quick and decisive. That being said, these teams are well-organized, making it much easier to predict the next phase of play. Players are also much better at heeding the referee's calls (particularly with regard to respecting the offside line).
The three referees are all full-time with their home unions (two are currently on the IRB Panel with the third set to join that Panel in the fall), and you can see why from their demeanor on the field. These guys don't get ruffled at all and their communication (even where there might be a language issue) is absolutely clear and concise. No extra words, no confusion, they just get the necessary message across. They are also very detailed in both their match preparation and review, undertaken not only a video review of their own performance, but watching video of the teams they will be refereeing in their next match, to get an idea of the style of rugby to expect. Of course, this is a lot easier when there is video available. That being said, when it comes to pre-match briefings with the ARs, the process that these professional referees go through is very similar to what I experience last year in the Canadian Rugby Championship. From an AR perspective, I find this consistency to be incredibly good and it shows that top-level referees in Canada are using the same processes to prepare for matches as are IRB Panel referees. I suppose this should not be surprising given the significant experience that many Canadian referees are now gaining at an international level.
Overall, I feel my performance has been solid. I definitely gained some points by being the only person to bring any Communications gear (the professional guys always have stuff provided for them on match days). I have been AR for two matches on each match day and have received positive feedback from both Bertie Smith and Tom Aplin (Performance Reviewer). I have noticed though, that it is that much more difficult to stay calm and composed, given the higher level of competition and scrutiny. There have been a couple of situations where I flagged an incident, and even though I was absolutely sure of what I saw and what I needed to report to the referee, I started feeling nervous that the video might reveal something different or wrong with my call. However, I didn't let this show and was clear and concise in my reporting to the referee, and feel I have been accruate throughout. It has been a great experience in learning to trust my own abilities, no matter what the level of play, and keeping and calm and confident demeanour at all times.
Later today we will be heading to take a tour of the Palace of the Parliament (originally Ceaucescu's Palace before his execution in 1989), which is apparently the second largest building in the world (in total square footage) after the Pentagon. Then tomorrow is an excursion to the Black Sea to enjoy a little relaxation on the beach before the final match day on Sunday. Even though I knew that the matchdays were spread out, I was not ready fo the amount of downtime you got. And while we do most things (eat meals, sightseeing etc) as a team of officials, there is still a lot of time spent on your own (mostly reviewing match videos, but also catching up on work emails). I can't imagine what it must be like for referees heading to the World Cup, as they won't even have the benefit of operating in a set team. Jerome Garces is heading to the World Cup as an AR and Reserve Referee, and he will be away from home for at least four and a half weeks. And that's just the Round Robin stages. While these guys may be getting paid to referee, the sacrifices they make (especially those with families at home) is immense.
As for Sunday's matches, I'm not sure which two I will be working, but expect them to be well-contested, no matter what. Then it is an early flight out on Monday morning and a 16-hour journey to get home. Ahhh, the life of a referee!!!