The IRB will soon be advertising for a new referees manager as Paddy O’Brien is shifting sideways onto the Sevens circuit. The decision will be confirmed on Monday.
This will be presented by the IRB as O’Brien’s decision, and perhaps that’s exactly what it is. Certainly my understanding is that he had his fill of what is a very difficult job. And now he can move into the increasingly glamorous and easier-to-manage world of Sevens, which by the time we get to Rio in 2016 will be part of the Five Ring Circus and a box office game.
There won’t be a clamour for him to rethink the move. There was always disquiet in the IRB that he continued to base himself in Invercargill, hardly the epicentre of world rugby, and when this season’s Six Nations descended into wholesale controversy in its first week he wasn’t around to deal with it.
Fair enough, but my biggest issue with him was his failure to effect consistent and positive change among his refs on the issue of sealing ball off at the breakdown. It remains the greatest scourge in the game, the fact that for many players their first action when arriving to a tackle is to bridge over the ball with their hands on the ground.
It doesn’t require replays to pick it up, but it does a need a referee who will blow it up so often that the issue will be inescapable. That should have happened on Paddy’s O’Brien’s watch and it didn’t.
Certainly there was a problem with him laying down the law at international level and then refs dancing to a different tune in club competitions. So yes, there is a joint responsibility here, but the merit system which he championed was the most effective tool of all.
Ref managers Donal Courtney in the ERC and Lyndon Bray in Sanzar for example have exactly this issue to sort out in their own back yards. They were at the three day meeting this week with refereeing selectors, much of which focused on getting consistency around the world, but don’t think for a minute that a positive vibe from a meeting like that will result in a material change in how the game is refereed.
It will require a couple of weeks of mayhem to sort out, where referees are told they have the backing of their managers to go out and blow offenders off the park. There would be uproar. And quickly coaches would react, as would players, and the game would move on in much better shape.
This should have been Paddy O’Brien’s legacy. He had two World Cups under his control and a whole heap of Six Nations and Tri Nations games in between, and he made no impression on this critical area. Let’s see how the next fella fares out.