Irish ref Rolland revisits highs and lows of career in final season

At the end of the current rugby season, Irish rugby will say goodbye to a long time servant of the game.

If you’re thinking Brian O’Driscoll, you would be half right. Irish rugby referee Alain Rolland this week announced that he’d be hanging up his whistle at the end of the season.

Rolland is considered the world over as one of the greatest referees out there. rugby correspondent, Daniel Pitcher spoke to Alain about his decision to retire.

Alain Rolland refereeing an Ulster Bank League game between Young Munster and St Mary's College at Tom Clifford Park in Limerick last year. Pic: SPORTSFILE .

The Decision

Alain has been refereeing since the early noughties and has achieved a lot - going from high-profile test games in Australia and New Zealand to Rugby World Cup finals via the Heineken Cup. So with all that under his belt, why has Rolland decided to stop?

“I’ve got to the stage now with the ages of my kids where I need to be spending more time at home – I left my last job two months ago and starting a new one on Monday so it’s giving me an opportunity to spend all this time at home and it’s highlighted all the time I’m away and what I’m missing out on and when you take that into account in addition to taking on a new job, there is a lot of change and I feel I wanted to be able to make the decision myself as opposed to someone else making it so now the time is right.”

A former broker with Cornmarket, Alain will be delving into the world of holidaymaking as director of sales at It’s a job that’s been in the pipe line all summer and Rolland feels that now was the right time to give notice of retirement.

“I knew I was getting into a new career and I had the summer off and it’s the first time in about 20 years that I’ve had this time with the family and when you take into account that the next World Cup is two years away, putting it all together it just feels right that this is the time to do it.”

Early Career

What some of our readers might not realise about Rolland is that he was an experienced player before taking up the whistle and cards.

He made an Irish senior test debut at scrum-half against Argentina on October 27, 1990, in Lansdowne Road - a match Ireland won 20-18. He had also come off the bench on two other occasions.

He says: “I was involved with the Irish squad in the 90’s and I was playing with Leinster while the game was in the amateur era, so I was able to work as everybody else did and you trained a few nights a week and had games at the week-end and it’s a result of the game turning professional that I decided to stop playing because Leinster were looking for full time contract players and they wouldn’t leave me on a part time contract so I decided to get into refereeing.

“I had great enjoyment with Ireland and Leinster and I played a lot of sevens rugby as well where I was playing for Ireland and the Wolfhound’s still in the amateur days, which was great because you could play with both teams where now in the professional era, it’s either one or the other”

Alain during his Ireland playing days back in 1996. Pic: SPORTSFILE .

When he finished up his playing days, Alain turned to refereeing and joined the Association of referees Leinster Branch where in those days, the ladder referees now have to climb to reach the top level was completely different.

“I started my refereeing at the time when Eoin Doyle was taken on as director of referee’s in the IRFU and he had a view as to how it should work in relation to spotting talent and put them thru a fast track system – In other words rather than having to do six years at the lower level, if they felt you were good enough they would give you games sooner and map your progress.”

At The Top

Alain was an international referee by September 2001 and his first test game was Wales vs Romania at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, with the Welsh destroying the visitors 81-9.

“I remember it well, you got notification firstly that you were selected to do it, which was a great honour, I’ll always remember when Eoin phoned me to say Alain congrats you have been selected for your first test game.” Rolland said.

“You’re flying into Cardiff and going into the dressing rooms and talking to the coaches, captains and front rows and there is great excitement along with nerves but more excitement that you have this opportunity and then you think god I don’t want to stuff this up.”

“The game itself wasn’t very challenging, although Romania were leading 9-3 but Wales scored 3 tries before half time before just running away with it in the second half so there was a contest in the opening half hour but all we as ref’s can do is ref what we see in front of us and hope we do it to the best of our ability.” He said.

There was a time in Alain’s refereeing career that he would be the first man arriving at a lineout or the first man at a ball that may have been launched up the pitch, this would have been partly down to the level of fitness that Rolland has but he explains that a lot of that was down to his old scrumhalf mentality.

“Having played at 9, a position that you have to be as close to the ball as possible 90% of the time so naturally your lines of running are geared to be where the ball is and I found at the beginning I was refereeing but running lines as a scrumhalf.

“I was finding myself I was in the in-goal area before one or two of the players were and your anticipation for what they should be doing thankfully worked some of the time but not all the time – but as you get wiser and older you see that you don’t have to be doing 10km in a game where you could be doing 7 or 8 and still be comfortable.”

World Cup Final

Anyone involved in rugby at any level, whether it be coaches, players or in this case referees have one thing in common; a dream to be involved in the Rugby World Cup final.

A whole six years of high profile club and internationals had gone by for Alain before hearing what he’d never thought he’d hear. At a referees meeting at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, Rolland was appointed referee for the final in Paris.

Rolland was one of 12 referees, along with fellow Irishman Alan Lewis, and other top class refs like Nigel Owen from Wales and Australia's Stuart Dickenson.

“We had done all the pool games and were approaching the knock-out games and what was going to happen was on the Monday prior to the quarter finals we were reviewing how the pool matches went and at the end of that meeting the quarter final appointments were made and I had the honour of being given England vs Australia.” Rolland said.

“The following Monday they should have only announced the appointments for the semi-finals but they made the decision due to the performances and the teams left in it that they would also appoint for the final as well which I don’t think had ever been done – They went through then the two semi-finals then the final, a pin could have dropped and my heart was pounding out of my chest because you just didn’t know, you were either going to be delighted or distraught and then he announced the referee for the final is, and said my name and I couldn’t tell you what happened – It was a great moment.”

The game itself was a tight affair dominated by penalties as Percy Montgomery slotted 4 from 4 and Francois Steyn took 1 from 2 attempts for the Springboks. The English meanwhile, only slotted between the posts twice with Johnny Wilkinson missing two drop goal chances.

The talking point of that whole 80 minutes was when Mark Cueto thought he had scored a winning try. Rolland approached the touch judge to check if a foot was in touch and they both agreed the TMO needed to make the decision.

Long story short, no try was the decision and South Africa won it 15-6.

Rolland said: “I had no choice but to refer to the TMO because my assistant couldn’t tell whether he was in touch or not before the ball was grounded, nor could I but I tell you what, I was happy I didn’t make the decision, that said it was the right call for no try, there was inches in it but enough to deem the player was in touch and the decision was correct, it’s just one of those things that are out of a referees control but happy we got it right.”

Sam Warburton

As a referee, albeit at a much lower level, I know that referees have to live and die by decisions on the pitch and I think no matter how good the ref, everyone has a controversial decision to their name.

One decision that stands out of Rolland’s career was the red card he showed Sam Warburton in the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup for a dangerous tip tackle on Vincent Clerc after only 18 minutes of play at Eden Park.

Some pundits – particularly those on English television - slated Alain in the aftermath as France went through, but Rolland says he made his decision by the action and not by the intent.

“There are some decisions we make are difficult and there are those that are easy – We have to make the decision on the action not the intent involved and people get confused that if there was no intention that it should have a bearing on what happens next – Unfortunately with the way the laws are written, it can’t be like that.

“We are faced with an action and that action has a subsequent consequence whether that be good or bad and the action he did on that night was dangerous and it was a red card.”

Explaining the law Rolland said, “What you look at is, have the legs gone above shoulder height, if they have you’re in a card situation, then you have to look at what colour – the next thing is the landing, if the player has landed on neck or shoulder, it’s a red but if a player can bring him down to land on his backside or side then he might be lucky enough with a yellow.”

“Nobody is saying he meant to do it on purpose but he did an action that merited a sanction and under what we were told under the laws of the game, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make, the picture was clear.” He added

Rolland may have been criticised by some in the media after the game but there were other people, like parents and doctors, who actually took the time to write to Alain and thank him. He says it was highlighting a problem that parents didn’t want their kids playing a game where that could happen to them.

“What kids see in the shop window they feel it’s ok to do when they are playing themselves – So if you see something and the professionals are getting away with it, they think its ok for them to do it, its grand for us to do it – But if they see the professionals can’t do it kids won’t do it.”

Penalty Shootout

One of the most bizarre things I have ever seen in all my time watching rugby was a penalty shootout in a Heineken Cup match between Leicester and Cardiff Blues at the Millennium Stadium after the sides were tied after extra time.

Rolland was the man in the middle that day and he admits it was a strange situation to be in.

“We weren’t surprised when it came to it, we had been briefed in different situations so we knew what was happening – I just felt sorry for Martin Williams who missed a kick in sudden death and it lost the game.”

Finally, Alain says that after this season finishes that it will be the end for him as a referee at any level.

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