Elite referee Wayne Barnes gives Rugby World an insight into the other side of his life as a barrister. This feature first appeared in Rugby world magazine in September.
Elite referee Wayne Barnes on life as a barrister
We’re used to seeing Wayne Barnes dressed in rugby kit with a whistle in hand, but when he greets us at reception in The Shard he’s wearing a shirt and tie with an access pass in hand.
Should anyone he works with at Fulcrum Chambers, which is housed within the London landmark, forget what Barnes’s other job is, though, a regular reminder has been left by the former office manager. The screensavers on all the computers are photos of the international referee in a variety of kits.
Rugby World has come to meet Barnes on a weekday evening – less chance of a ribbing from his workmates if the office is empty while we take photos, although he has received plenty of advice on how he should pose and smile. We want to know how he juggles life as a top rugby official while also working as a barrister – not to mention the fact he also has two young children, Juno, three, and Beau, one, with wife Polly.
So what is an average week like? “On Monday and Tuesday we’ll do reviews and training as a referees group,” the 39-year-old says. “On Wednesday I try to be in the chambers in town most of the time. Then it depends what the weekend is looking like. If it’s a Premiership game, I’ll likely be in chambers on Thursday too; if it’s a European week I’ll probably be travelling. It’s important to get away from rugby at times and this (being a barrister) is a good way to switch off.”
Barnes didn’t plan for his life to pan out like this. He only took up refereeing after suffering an injury in his teens and being encouraged to pick up the whistle by a teacher. When he realised you got a couple of free pints, he became more interested! It was law he studied at university and a career as a barrister he pursued after graduating, but as he started to progress up the ranks as a referee the RFU offered to employ him in 2005. He’s now refereed more Premiership games than any other official, taken charge of 80 Tests and was the man in the middle for this year’s European Champions Cup final. If England don’t reach next year’s World Cup final, he will surely be one of the front-runners to referee that match too.
While his life is clearly busy – he’s currently darting between the northern and southern hemispheres to officiate in the Rugby Championship – he believes his parallel careers complement each other. “If I go back to the days when I was wearing a wig and gown, I was cross-examining people in court and dealing with people in stressful situations and pressured environments – a client may have been about to get a reasonable sentence and I’m working in their best interests. That advocacy is hugely transferable. It’s how to talk to people.
“As a barrister you have to be able to pick out key facts, whether prosecuting or defending. It’s attention to detail and picking out the relevant facts – again that’s transferable. Analysing legal text is part of both jobs – knowing the law.”
These days, Barnes is making his point on rugby pitches more often than in courtrooms as his chambers specialises in bribery and corruption so the work is more “paper based”. Fulcrum works with multinational companies and advise the boards on how to run internal investigations and assess the tender process for overseas contracts, where third parties are often involved.
Fulcrum is looking to expand into the sporting arena and how to advise governing bodies. It’s a smart move – after all, recent scandals have shown that sport is not immune from corruption, far from it in fact. As Barnes says: “With my understanding of internal investigations and governance, and knowledge of the law, it’s a good next step. Everyone is concerned about governance and integrity, so with my knowledge of both (sport and law) it would be a natural fit.”
Obviously the chambers will steer clear of rugby organisations to avoid a conflict of interest, but that may change sooner rather than later. Barnes plans to hang up his whistle after Japan 2019 – being selected as one of the referees for what would be his fourth World Cup is a major goal – so he can spend more time with his family and focus on his legal career.
“The biggest challenge at the moment is the amount of time away from home. There’s a lot of travel, particularly around World Rugby competitions, and if I go in 2019 I’ll be away for seven weeks. Juno will start school when I’m at the World Cup. FaceTime is a revelation but it’s difficult to be away from the kids.”
Not that he doesn’t have a laugh when he’s on refereeing duty. He recalls the officials’ court session at the end of the last World Cup. Nigel Owens was the judge and Barnes, fittingly, was the prosecutor. He even donned his wig for the occasion (sadly he wouldn’t do the same for our photo shoot, saying it was too incongruous to wear it in the office – he had a point!), although he misplaced it on the way back to the hotel.
“I didn’t really know where it went but luckily one of the support staff found it outside Madame Tussauds,” he recalls.
“I think it was at the same time they were helping out another guy who thought Madame Tussauds was our hotel and that Kylie Minogue was waving at him!
“We’re all massive rugby fans and having a court session is part and parcel of the World Cup. Everyone forgets we’re a tight bunch as well; we’re our own little team. Craig Joubert, Nigel Owens and I were refereeing on the sevens circuit in 2002, so we’ve grown up with each other. We’re a good bunch of friends and have travelled the world together.”
Barnes is also quick to point out the strong relationships referees have with players and coaches. Take Schalk Brits: Barnes sin-binned him in May’s Premiership final – the hooker’s final game for Saracens – but at the end of the game they still shared a hug.
Then there’s the Champions Cup final. While Barnes and his assistants sat in their changing room reflecting on the game, there was a knock on the door from Racing 92 lock Donnacha Ryan, who came in to share a few beers, and Leinster prop Tadhg Furlong followed soon after with more beers.
“To have a winning and a losing player in our changing room speaks volumes about the game,” says Barnes. “There’s a nice relationship between all of us and we all work together – players, coaches and referees. We can talk about how the game is changing and advancing. It’s great to work with coaches and pick their brains and understand what they think.
“It’s not a straightforward game and that’s what I like about it. Coaches can look at the laws and look at a way of adapting their strategy around it to try to stay one step ahead.”
It’s this kind of interaction that Barnes believes should encourage more people to go into refereeing. As well as meeting great people, he says there is a lot of fun to be had as a referee and highlights something Ed Morrison has often said to him: “The last laugh is had in the referee’s changing room.”
In terms of advice for those thinking of going down the referee route, he points to the fact he officiated more than 200 games in his first three seasons. Taking charge of that many games allows you to experience myriad situations and quandaries of the law book. After all, the more you do something the quicker you learn and the better you become.
As for making calls in a game, Barnes says: “Every time you make a decision do it with a clear mind. You don’t want to worry about your last decision. Also, make decisions on the facts in front of you, not ‘I upset this team last year’ or ‘This could cost the team the match’.”
It’s that cool-headed approach that has seen Barnes become arguably the world’s best referee. It’s hard to think of anyone who would have handled that incredible 100-minute game in Paris during the 2017 Six Nations better, calling on all his legal expertise, rugby and otherwise, to deal with France’s questionable actions around front-row replacements at the end of the game.
He may be entering the final stretch of his refereeing career – a decision he no doubt made with a clear mind – but there are still plenty of big occasions on the horizon, not least that World Cup in Japan. Then, as we enter 2020, the shirt and tie rather than the rugby kit will become his more common uniform.
This feature first appeared in Rugby world magazine in September.