Irish rugby officials rigorous in mental and physical preparation for World Cup duty

They worked on performance mindset with former Dublin Gaelic footballer Kevin McManamon

Ireland’s quartet of officiating representatives at the upcoming Rugby World Cup in France, referee Andy Brace, assistant referee Chris Busby and television match officials (TMOs) Brian MacNeice and Joy Neville spoke on a wide ranging suite of subjects including working with former Dublin Gaelic footballer Kevin McManamon.

A high-performance coach and sport psychology consultant across multiple sports, McManamon (KevMc Performance) had previously worked with the 2019 under-20 Grand Slam winning team in rugby and broadened that remit to include Irish rugby’s elite referees.

Chris Busby explained: “Kevin came in and started working with us at the start of the year, it’s a good example of the support and development we get. We’re looking at ways that we can improve and maybe put the same sort of levels that the professional players have in place.

“He’s been a breath of fresh air; he helps with that sort of performance mindset. How we deal with things both on and off the pitch, whether that’s review, decision-making, trying to move on to the next decision. I think he’s been excellent for us as a group over the last six months ago.


“Before there was support from a sports psychology point of view, but it was probably a little bit less formalised and more sporadic. Kev is much more available to us now, he’d have regular check-ins with us.

“From my point of view, he’s supported me around the big moments, making the decision and then being able to move on quickly to the next one, because I think for referees that can be very difficult.

“You’ve a lot of external influence around you, you’ve a big screen, hear the crowd and sometimes it can be difficult to get back into the moment and start being ready, because the next big decision could be 30 seconds later.”

Neville, who will become the first woman to officiate at a men’s World Cup, offered her thoughts regarding the milestone. “It means an awful lot. This will be my sixth World Cup as both a player and a referee, between 15s and Sevens. Even though I have all that experience in both codes, with the men’s World Cup, I still think I’ll learn an awful lot in those few months.

“It’s a massive honour for me and my family. Andy [Brace] alluded to the fact that we’re a close-knit group. I think we’re very unique from an IRFU perspective. The support structures that we have in place from Johnny [Lacey, IRFU high performance referee coach and talent ID manager) and Dudley [Phillips, IRFU’s head of referees] and the back room team in all the provinces [is first class], but also we have each other’s backs.

“I am sitting here happy and proud due to the fact that I’ve got here because of those support structures. I think we’ve all been there for each other.”

From an IRFU perspective Phillips highlighted the success of a decision to set up a refereeing high-performance programme that has enabled Ireland to match its previous highest representation of four match officials at a World Cup in Australia back in 2003.

There are currently 559 referees across domestic rugby in the four provinces and last year they presided over 13,000 matches. Phillips confirmed that this year 115 new referees had been recruited, but the net benefit was just 25 due to injuries and retirements.

He added: “As we look at the pathway which the four officials here today all came through, regardless of what province they were in, there are members now looking at the selections and thinking ‘wow that’s brilliant’.

“It’s very exciting, we have a continuous drive within the provinces to feed our succession planning and with our development team led by David Wilkinson and the army of volunteers that is going to be a goal for the foreseeable future.”

The four Irish World Cup-bound officials were asked if they remembered the first match they refereed. Busby: “Ophir seconds, can’t remember the opponents (2011). Brace: “Munster development squad v Garryowen Under-20s.”

“Neville: “St Munchin’s Under-14s (2014/15), I have never been close to as nervous as I was; quite daunting. I remember thinking I never want to ref again.” Brian MacNeice: “I’m the grandad here. UCD J3s v Guinness in 2002.” They have come a long way since.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer