06 Oct 2017
Greg Garner may just be the fittest rugby administrator in the world.
England's Premiership was about to start on 1 September 2017. Garner was all set to referee in the Premiership - a fit man he was also in training for the start of the new season in the Premiership.
Fit as he was, he did not even pick up his whistle. About six weeks before the start of the season, PRO14, recently enlarged from PRO12 to include the Cheetahs and Southern Kings from South Africa, appointed Garner as their manager of its elite referees. His main job was to appoint referees to PRO14 matches, review referee performance and develop a squad of match officials from the five countries in the tournament that will continually drive up the standards of refereeing across the tournament. It has meant the end of a refereeing career for the 37-year-old former schoolmaster but the start of a new one.
Garner certainly has the qualifications to do an excellent job - a well educated man of calm and friendly disposition, a former player and a top referee.
Born in Coventry on 26 June 1980, Garner went to school there - at King Henry VIII School, an independent co-ed school founded in 1545, an Anglican school. From there he went to Nottingham University and became a schoolmaster. At school and university, he played rugby and was chosen as a flank in the Warwickshire Under-18 side. But it was between school and university that he started his involvement in refereeing.
Off he went to Perth on a gap year at Aquinas College, founded by the Christian Brothers in 1894, one of the oldest schools in Western Australia though over three centuries younger than his previous school. Aquinas plays rugby but this is the land of Aussie Rules, and Garner started his refereeing there. He went to a referees' course, he says by accident, and then started refereeing at school. The refereeing bug often bites.
Back in England, Garner joined the Warwickshire Referees' Society. His career has been a great one - 16 Tests after his first between Italy and Tonga in 2012, 120 Premiership matches and 40 European Cup matches - none in PRO12 rugby because it is not a competition in which English clubs take part, but, of course, he would have mixed with the top referees from the PRO12. In 2012, Garner refereed the final of the Under-20 World Championship at Newlands.
Garner gave up teaching and was a full-time professional referee in England with two years to run on his contract. Enter Ed Morrison.
Morrison is one of the great referees of rugby history, a calm and unassuming man who served the game so well - much like Garner in fact. Morrison made the decision to step down from the position as Independent Referee Appointments Commissioner for the then PRO12 and the new position of Elite Referee Manager would be created.
Once the recruitment process began in April 2017 Garner applied and after a tough couple of interviews he was selected for the position that he is pleased to have.
Modern communications help in Garner's job. For one thing, he, his wife and two sons do not have to move anywhere. They live in Cardiff and once a week Dad goes to PRO14 headquarters in Dublin, an hour's flight, something like Johannesburg to Bloemfontein.
We got Garner to talk about past, present and future.
What have you enjoyed about referees and refereeing? "The most enjoyable thing about refereeing has been the people that I’ve met along the way and the community that I’ve been part of. Wherever I’ve been in the world I have been welcomed by all the referees in the host country. Being a referee is being part of a huge community that has been really enjoyable. Some of my best friends are referees and whilst I am really pleased to still be involved in the refereeing community, I will miss all the colleagues and friends in the English set-up that I’ve made over the last 15 years."
Who are the people that helped you along the way? "Ian Roberts – a member of Warwickshire Society of Referees. He got me into refereeing nearly 20 years ago and has been a mentor and a friend ever since. A fantastic man who has helped so many referees at all levels improve over the years.
"Tony Spreadbury – Head of the PGMOT [Professional Game Match Officials Team] in the RFU. A highly intelligent and dedicated individual who has been the driving force behind the success of refereeing in England over the last five years. He has redefined how the full time referees in England work together and has made them a team who strive to help each other and improve as a group.
"Nigel Yates – Ex Premiership referee who was my coach for the last 3 years. Technically superb and challenged me to think about refereeing more than anyone has. He is an outstanding referee coach and one of the main reasons why I was so successful in the Premiership over the last 3 years.
"JP Doyle – we started at the RFU together in 2009 and worked together at Feltonfleet Preparatory School in Surrey from 2007-2009. A great friend of mine and we have helped each other develop together over the years. We came into the Premiership together in 2009, went to two Junior World Cups together and continued to push each other over the years to try and become better referees"
Who were the referees you especially looked up to? "Chris White, Steve Walsh and Wayne Barnes."
Garner is looking forward to the new job. The challenge? "The challenge is moving from England into the PRO14 and helping the PRO14 become into the best club competition in the world. There are some outstanding referees within the tournament and the main challenges will be ensuring that there is a continuing pipeline of talent coming into the tournament over the next few years and also to get the five unions within the tournament working together to drive forward the standards in match officiating and refereeing.
What back-up people do you have - e.g. selection committee, assessment committee? "The selection committee is myself and the five referee managers from the countries involved. So they would be Tappe Henning in Scotland, David McHugh in Ireland, Paul Adams in Wales, Carlo Damasco in Italy and Mark Lawrence in South Africa.
"We meet via video conference every week to review every game in the RO14 in detail. I watch all the games in the PRO14 each week and each manager reviews one game that doesn’t involve a referee from their own country. The referee managers then feedback to the group their thoughts on the referee performance and we have a discussion between us. At least 3 of us will have watched each game so we can have a good discussion and if there is some debate over performance we can come to an agreement as a group.
These messages are then relayed back to the referee through the referee managers and through messages and guidelines sent out every week to the referees and the clubs. It is important that the clubs know what we are trying to achieve as a group of referees as we will only improve the standards of the RO14 if the coaches, players and referees are working together to try and make the standard of rugby better across the Championship. The PRO14 has a reputation of positive play across the world and I want to build on this to help make the PRO14 the best club competition in the world.
"There are also performance reviewers [assessors] who will review each referee and each game. They complete their report on AMS [Athlete Management System] and do a performance audit of the match. This can be used as a performance measurement tool and also a means to identify areas for development within each referee."
Only referees know what a pleasure it is to be with and around referees and what a pleasure it is to work with them. All referees would be glad that Greg Garner has the job of working with Guinness PRO14 referees and would expect him to build it into excellence.