The Guardian

‘Abuse has gone to the next level – aimed at my family’

Former referee on getting death threats since the Rugby World Cup final, his record-breaking career and why he respects Howard Webb

Donald Mcrae Right time to finish.”

Acluster of balloons and a birthday cake, in the shape of a chocolate caterpillar, light up Wayne Barnes’s family home. The most accomplished and most vilified referee in world rugby smiles and points to a silver balloon in the shape of a 7, to confirm the birthday they will celebrate once his son and nine-year-old daughter return home from school for this afternoon’s party.

Barnes and his wife, Polly, can set aside the death threats and venomous warnings they have received since, in his final game as a referee, he took charge of an epic

World Cup final in Paris last month. Unhinged people have since promised to burn down the house where we now sit. Some have confirmed the family address while others have emailed Polly directly to warn that she and their children will be attacked or killed.

All this poison follows a game of rugby between the sport’s greatest rivals, New Zealand and South Africa, which ended in a 12-11 victory for the Springboks. Sam Cane and Siya Kolisi, the respective captains, were sent to the sinbin by Barnes – but only the All Blacks skipper had his yellow card upgraded to a red by the bunker review system which analysed the

incident in detail while the game continued.

“I might have written a strongly worded email to BA when my luggage has been lost,” Barnes says, “but it’s never abusive. I get that people think they’ve been hard done by and, whether that’s true or not, everyone is allowed their opinion. But the idea you can use your phone and send hate towards a family? I can’t imagine doing that to anyone.”

Barnes, who officiated in a record five World Cups and 111 internationals, had decided to retire long before this latest barrage of threats. In 2007, after he missed a forward pass which allowed France to score one of the tries that helped them shock New Zealand in a World Cup quarter-final, he was hounded. Social media was in its infancy but a Facebook group called “Wayne Barnes Must Die” emerged alongside more routine bile which described him as the third most evil man in the world after Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Last year, after South Africa lost narrowly to France in Marseille and their director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, castigated him on Twitter, Barnes was again subjected to death threats. “It’s now gone to the next level of abuse,” he says. “It’s so much worse than 2007 because it has now been aimed at my family. In the last 12 months, from November 2022 and the South African thing to the World Cup, they’re not just targeting me. They are tracking down my wife, finding her email address and threatening her directly. They are saying: ‘We know where you live, we’ll be waiting outside the kids’ school, we’re going to burn your house down with the kids in it.’ Of course it affects you.”

Barnes was the best rugby referee in the world, despite the social media furores, and in his day job he is a barrister in London. His twin careers show how far he has come from his childhood on a council estate in Bream in the Forest of Dean. He has also just written, with Ben Dirs, an immensely readable and often humorous book.

“An Irish journalist described me as ‘a deranged Eton headmaster with a ferret down his pants’,” Barnes writes. “I’ve no idea what the ferret reference was about, but I assume by ‘Eton headmaster’ he was attempting to portray me as a stereotypical English rugger bloke: superior, posh, from the home counties. He couldn’t have been much further from the truth. The fact I’m called Wayne should have been a clue. Believe it or not, my brother’s called Darren.”

We’re not laughing when I ask Barnes if he has felt genuine fear recently? “I wouldn’t say it’s fear but I’ve been careful. Last year, for example, the RFU invited the family to celebrate my 100th international. They were going to present me something on the pitch but this was during England versus South Africa and it was two weeks after this had broken with the Springboks. So it wasn’t right to put them in that situation.

“It was very unlikely something physically untoward would happen but imagine the kids and I get down on the pitch and 10,000 people boo me. How does that feel for the kids? Polly and I protect them as much as we can but when you see what happened to Anthony Taylor, who has got older children, you can only imagine what’s going through his head as he was physically trying to protect them. That was really awful.”

Barnes was shaken by the footage of the football referee, whom he knows well, and his family being surrounded by baying Roma fans who hurled a chair and a bottle in Taylor’s direction after the Europa League final in June. José Mourinho, the Roma manager, had shouted and sworn at Taylor after they lost the final on penalties to Sevilla. His antics seemed to legitimise the fans’ unjustified fury. There is a clear responsibility now on coaches and managers to be far more circumspect when criticising referees because their words carry troubling consequences.

The 44-year-old Barnes admits he was too young to have been awarded a World Cup quarter-final in 2007. He still performed competently – apart from the one moment he missed that forward pass. There was no TMO to overturn forward passes then and, seeing his error on the big screen, Barnes was mortified.

He was even more wounded when, in 2012, the All Blacks coach, Graham Henry, wrote in his autobiography that he had “wondered” if Barnes might have been involved in match-fixing. It was outrageous and libellous but Barnes shrugs. “As a barrister you get lawyers ringing up and saying: ‘Would you like to consider this?’ But refs are pretty good at accepting their position of responsibility and behaving in a way which protects the game.”

Last November, during the fractious Test in Marseille, Barnes sent off France’s captain, Antoine Dupont, who apologised to him as he left the field, as well as the great Springbok forward Pieter-steph du Toit. Erasmus then posted tweets which sparked more rage online.

When I interviewed him in August, Erasmus expressed regret at the way he had treated match officials while Barnes reveals that, after the World Cup final, “Rassie came down to the side of the pitch and apologised to me. He said: ‘Sorry about what happened.’ I appreciated it, because he knew I would never referee the Springboks again. So it was genuine.”

In his book Barnes suggests there have been times when his wife “hated rugby and everything to do with it” – even though Polly helped set up the women’s players union and she is funny and trenchant on social media. “It’s not the game because she is a massive advocate of women’s rugby,” Barnes says, “but what it has brought down on our family. Rugby has brought me a load of heartache the last year and we’ve had really upsetting times.”

Barnes adds: “That’s why I’m keen to see what can be done. There’ve been changes in the law recently which put more pressure on social media providers, but another step is making people more easily identifiable. World Rugby engaged with a social media forensic team. If they identify the individual, they’ll work with prosecution authorities and there’s one active case in Australia, with another match official whose wife was abused online. They’ve identified where that [abuser] lives and they’re working out whether they’ve crossed the criminal threshold. All sports need to protect their coaches, players and refs, and say: ‘If you’re going to abuse or threaten them, there is a consequence and it might be a criminal conviction’.”

It is striking that Barnes and Cane showed compassion and dignity straight after that heartbreaking loss for New Zealand. “Sam came on to the pitch as I was walking off and just said: ‘Thanks’,” Barnes recalls. “I said something like: ‘I really felt for you tonight and you’ve been amazing to work with.’ I refereed him a dozen times and he’s always been genuine.”

Such moving moments are lost in a furious world. Barnes also talks good sense when arguing that rugby needs to find “an overarching philosophy” which allows the game to flow rather than being bogged down in its complex rulebook. “There are 21 laws, with 300 subsections, so if you wanted to referee every single law, the game would never get going. The best games I’ve been involved in had constant flow. You don’t get that by blowing every single potential infringement. Players, coaches, refs and administrators should all sit down and say: ‘What do we really want this game to look like?’”

Barnes’s work as a barrister means that his communication skills have always helped players understand his decisionmaking. World Rugby sometimes condemned him for talking too openly on the field, and using players’ first names in an effort to build understanding, but his approach stands in stark contrast to the furtive and inconsistent use of VAR in football.

In his measured way Barnes points out that “VAR is only a twoyear process and it will evolve whereas rugby has been doing this for 20 years and we’re still looking at ways to improve. The [VAR audio] for that game between Liverpool and Spurs this season was chaotic. But you see the advancement already and finding ways of making sure everyone knows what’s going on would really improve VAR.”

How would he react if Howard Webb, the former referee in charge of VAR, asked him to consider a role in football? “I speak to Howard quite a bit. I’m a big fan of his as a person and he’s doing really good things.”

After stressing that he is interested in most sports, Barnes says “nothing is off the table at the moment. I want to be an advocate and I want to help officials. What that looks like, I’m not quite sure. But I’m interested in making sure people understand the complexities of officiating, humanising officiating, being an advocate for change around the abuse that comes with officiating. If that’s in football, yes. If that’s in cricket, yes. Lots of conversations are going on at the moment but nothing is sorted.”

Asked if he will miss the intensity of refereeing Barnes smiles. “If someone could zap me into Ellis Park for the Springboks against New Zealand or the MCG for a Bledisloe Cup game, then zap me out and give me a pill to stay fit, I would keep doing it. But it’s the sacrifice, training, reviewing, preparation, time away. So two weeks into my retirement I feel a big relief. I’m sure I will really miss it when the Six Nations starts and I’m watching and thinking: ‘I’d love to be standing in the middle of those two packs setting a scrum’ or ‘I’d love to have a beer afterwards with a great player and discuss how it went.’ So there will be moments – but this definitely feels like the

‘I said to Sam: I really felt for you tonight and you’ve been amazing to work with’