The Charles Tyrwhitt Sports Book Awards take place on 6 June. RW looks at one of the shortlisted rugby titles – the autobiography of record-breaking referee Wayne Barnes


How ironic that when Wayne Barnes, future referee extraordinaire, was a player in his student days, his main role in the team was to cheat.

As a “non-tackling back-row” for University of East Anglia, Barnes was part of a move that involved him holding the opposition flanker’s shirt to engineer space for a blind-side attack. When he tried it against Crusaders in the Norfolk Plate final, he received a punch in the face for his impertinence.

Barnes recalls the incident in Throwing the Book, the excellent autobiography that marked his retirement last November as arguably the best referee the sport has seen. He took charge of a world record 111 Tests, the last of them the 2023 World Cup final, along with 272 English Premiership matches, including a record ten finals.

* BUY NOW with Amazon

His book is the full package, amusing anecdotes complementing constructive criticism and some punchy opinions on referee bosses.

In 2005 at the U21 World Cup in Mendoza, he was pushed by Steve Griffiths, then World Rugby’s Referee Manager, to give his honest opinion on a directive to penalise attackers standing in front of the ball at the ruck. Barnes felt they had no effect on play and said so – and found himself refereeing the most lowly-ranked games for the rest of the tournament.

The trials and triumphs of Wayne Barnes

Barnes collects his medal from Sir Bill Beaumont after the 2023 World Cup final in Paris (Getty Images)

He was axed from the 2009 Six Nations for using first names when talking to players (although ended up doing the Wales-Ireland Grand Slam game after Steve Walsh was injured) and remarkably was still being reminded not to use first names last year!

He was also dropped from the 2012 Six Nations because he wasn’t penalising the attack enough at the breakdown. But letting games flow was his style and when he then started to penalise the attack mercilessly – spoiling games like Samoa v Tonga and Fiji v Samoa with an excessive amount of whistle – it was because it was the only way to stop his Test career finishing on the scrapheap.

World Rugby gets it in the neck regularly in the book. According to Barnes, their faults include issuing refereeing edicts halfway through tournaments; not preparing refs for the high tackle sanction framework at RWC 2019; ill-conceived law changes that then need abolishing; bowing to South African pressure to change the maul law after Wales found a way to disrupt it legally; blaming refs when there is public criticism instead of protecting them.

The trials and triumphs of Wayne Barnes

Trying to stop a fracas during a Top 14 match between Bourgoin and Biarritz in 2009 (AFP/Getty Images)

You might not agree with everything he says – his dismissive attitude to the crooked feed springs to mind – but he talks a shed-load of good sense. For example, the current system of marking a Test ref down for ‘non-decisions’ encourages refs to whistle for everything. Why not spin that around and mark them down for stopping a game unnecessarily?

“Refereeing at World Rugby needs a total overhaul, a clear philosophy and a coaching structure, so that all its match officials know what’s expected of them,” he concludes.

Some people still think Barnes is a posh rugger bloke from the Home Counties. They couldn’t be more wrong. Raised in Bream in the Forest of Dean, he acquired the nickname ‘Wurzel’ at university because of his thick Forest accent. His dad drove lorries, his mum worked at the snooker club, his brother was expelled from school for throwing a desk at the deputy head.

Barnes began refereeing at the age of 15, as a way to stay involved while he recovered from an injury. His debut with the whistle was Bream 3rds v Berry Hill Wrappers. It was bedlam on the pitch but afterwards he got paid a five for his trouble and given a tankard of beer. This could be the hobby for me, he thought.

Referees at Rugby World Cup 2011

Part of the referees’ line-up at RWC 2011 – a tournament where he was treated disgracefully (Getty)

He refereed about 100 matches in his first season, and ran touch 100 times too. It partially explains his heady progress: level five by the age of 21, a first Premiership match by 24, the RFU’s youngest full-time elite referee by 25. He made the RFU’s National Panel without doing any referee courses, endorsing his belief that there’s no better way to learn than on the job.

He was a fish out of water when given his first Premiership match: Bath v Rotherham in 2003. He expected a straightforward home win but in the event had a big punch-up, a streaker and an ambulance on the pitch to contend with. All whilst trying not to be sick following a huge night celebrating landing a tenancy at a London legal chambers.

In fact, Barnes’s ‘other job’, as a barrister, has often been forgotten down the years. Few realise how many nights he spent working on legal cases until midnight. On one occasion, whilst still a junior barrister, he was given a wasted costs order and fined for missing a rescheduled magistrates case that clashed with a prearranged Scotland-Barbarians game that he was reffing in Aberdeen.

If his selection for the 2007 World Cup refs group surprised many, there was a palpable shock in the room when it was announced that he would take charge of the biggest of the four quarter-finals, France v New Zealand in Cardiff. He was 28 at the time.

Barnes in the 2017 France v Wales match

Barnes during the remarkable 2017 France-Wales match that featured 20 minutes of stoppage time (Getty)

As we all know, he and his assistants missed a slight forward pass in the build-up to France’s winning try – one of those short passes that so many officials don’t spot. Barnes felt it prudent to disguise himself when attending the following week’s Paris semi-final as a fan, given the vast numbers of All Blacks fans in the stadium.

Sadly, the wound went deep and Barnes was subjected to shameful abuse from Kiwis at the 2011 World Cup in that country, including an effigy of him being burned in Christchurch, a Facebook group called Wayne Barnes Must Die and a bust of his head being placed in a Queenstown bar’s urinals. Barnes came close to suing Graham Henry for libel for suggesting match-fixing might have been at play, an utterly absurd slur.

Barnes almost quit the sport but was talked out of it by Nigel Yates, his coach. Forward-wind a decade and Rassie Erasmus was similarly irresponsible when posting inflammatory videos on social media, criticising Barnes’s decisions in the France v South Africa match in Marseille. Barnes and his family subsequently received appalling abuse and even death threats.

Since that episode in 2022, referees no longer meet head coaches one-to-one before Tests.

Wayne Barnes book cover

Happily there’s a lot of lighter material in the book, much of it drink-related. You might think a match official would never nod off while leaning on a post at Twickenham but strange things can happen on the World Sevens circuit…

And although Barnes reined in the more visible drinking as he got older, partly because he was a family man and partly because he was mindful of public perception, how refreshing that a referee can mingle with supporters in a pub after a match, instead of feeling they have to hide away.

Wayne Barnes was, and remains, a true rugby man, organising an annual charity match and setting up a union to further the interests of Test-match officials. He also has a YouTube channel called Throw the Book in which he explains rugby jargon.

Now working for a big law firm, Squire Patton Boggs, he helped take refereeing standards to a new level and that is a legacy that compares with any of the legendary players in our sport.

* BUY NOW with Amazon

Wayne Barnes: Throwing the Book, written with Ben Dirs, is published by Constable, RRP £25.

Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on FacebookInstagram and Twitter/X