Top 14 sides and France have both moved to bring officials on board – and reaped the rewards

What wins titles in rugby? Attack? Defence? The best players? The fittest squad? All of the above? Something else?

When the difference between the top sides in club rugby is tiny, coaches have to seek out ever more intangible advantages. In France, that intangible is, more often than not, discipline. And those coaches have turned to officialdom for help.

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Shortly before the 2021 Six Nations, France coach Fabien Galthié asked 2019 World Cup final referee Jérôme Garcès for help during national training camps – and started something of a revolution.

France finished second in the Covid-19 affected 2020 Six Nations, but had a player carded in every match and conceded 53 penalties across five games. Galthié and his staff realised that players needed to better understand why referees made the decisions they did, in real time.

So he asked Garcès – by then on the FFR payroll at Marcoussis – to referee training matches and explain why he blew his whistle at the time he blew it. He could also offer a referee’s insight into strategies and gameplans, tactics and initiatives. Remember Antoine Dupont hovering on the fringes of offside?

Why France and Fabien Galthié turned to a referee as a coach

“[Discipline] was something that we, perhaps, didn’t approach with enough precision last year, and it can have a big impact in a game,” Galthié said at the time. “Jérôme Garcès … will work with us and give us his vision of the game, which will help us understand how we can improve our rugby with the referee.

“It’s about playing with the referee, not against [them].”

By September 2021, Garcès’s role had evolved into a permanent position that included match official liaison and intel, as well as those referee-led coaching sessions.

Yes, referees have long worked with clubs and held meetings with players. But there’s a world of difference between ad hoc seminars and week-in, week-out one-on-squad work.

Read more: Alexandre Ruiz to move from refereeing to coaching

It’s the difference between a player realising – too late, perhaps – that what they just did would concede a penalty, and that player knowing in their muscles not to do it in the first place because it has been drilled into them on the training ground.

In a game as technical as rugby union, it’s close to impossible to eliminate penalties, but reducing them cuts the opposition’s chances for points. It wins matches. How many times has an avoidable penalty decided a game? Change that question. How many times has an avoidable penalty affected a result? We don’t see what hasn’t happened until later, when the numbers come in.

Montpellier and Castres were among the first French club sides to follow les Bleus’ lead. Others have followed suit. The former hired former Test-match official Alexandre Ruiz as defence coach for the start of the 2021-22 campaign. Castres – a side not noted for their discipline – quietly brought in ProD2 referee Cédric Clavé on a part-time basis.

referee as a coach

Alexandre Ruiz transitioned from refereeing (left) to coaching (right, both Getty Images)

Both had finished the previous season outside the Top 14 play-off places. Both had flirted with relegation. And both had replaced their coaches midway through the campaign.

Their 2021-22 seasons were very different. Montpellier won the Bouclier de Brennus (league trophy) for the first time, while losing finalists Castres finished the regular season at the top of the table… also for the first time.

Clavé, who holds the unfortunate title of discipline consultant at Castres told regional newspaper La Dépêche du Midi: “Discipline is a key element in a team’s performance. It’s like physical preparation – discipline is not a separate element that can be neglected.”

His job, at a club that hits the penalty count hard, is to shave off what he can, where he can. Whistles are still common at Stade Pierre Fabre, but they’re less often heard. It makes a difference.

But what of the new lawkeepers-turned-coaches’ impact on their clubs? Then-Montpellier scrum-half Benoit Paillaugue said of Ruiz’s first-season impact at the club: “His presence brought a lot of precision to the small details of the game. (We) were penalised much less than in previous seasons. We were much more disciplined.

“We were also able to better understand how a referee works. This can be useful when a match is very tight.”

The following season, Toulon hired retiring referee Romain Poite as a specialist coach, ‘in charge of discipline and rule adjustment’.

Poite admits he was slow to make an impression at the club – but recalls the exact match everything changed. It was February 2023, at Clermont, when 15 penalties cost Toulon a match they could, should, have won. “After that match, I was more incisive,” he told AFP in early December.

From 15 penalties a match in February, Toulon are currently conceding an average of around 8.5 per game this season. They headed into the final match before Christmas second in the Top 14. Three of their six wins in their first nine domestic games were decided by a single score. Or, for example, three unconceded penalties.

Why reducing the penalty count can win matches

For Poite, keeping penalties under double figures is good – but he wants Toulon to get closer to eight. “There is no secret: being penalised means losing possession, losing ground and getting tired trying to recover the ball,” he said.

This year, Garcès has added consultancy roles with Pau and Stade Français to his portfolio, while another referee, Tual Trainini, works with ProD2 outfit Provence, where George North is heading next season.

The ambitious Ruiz, meanwhile, has taken over as manager of ProD2 side Soyaux Angoulême, where he has handed over disciplinary matters to former whistle colleague Laurent Cardona, who spent a season working with Bordeaux as a consultant – and is still in contact with the players at Stade Chaban Delmas.

Often, Cardona explained in a Q&A with regional newspaper Le Telegramme, his role is to do some of the thinking for his players. “Sometimes, a player doesn’t think to come back to mistakes they made in a match.

“That means that the following week, they’re likely to make exactly the same mistake again. I work with players to see if they understood the mistake they made. If so, do they know how to correct it?”

Paul O’Connell famously once said that Ireland should, ‘be the best at everything that requires no talent’.

Plenty in rugby requires no talent. Getting up quickly, chasing a kick, getting back in the defensive line. None of it needs talent – just effort. Understanding the laws and how a game will be refereed could be added to O’Connell’s list.

The truth is, in a rugby match, sides are playing their opponents and the referee at the same time. Who wins tends to be whoever manages the game and the officials better.

Or, as Cardona put it rather more succinctly. “Like scrummaging, lineouts, attack and defence, discipline can win or lose a game … (It) can’t be left to chance.”

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