Without a referee, we don’t have a game, and rugby is fortunate to be blessed with some top-quality individuals to keep law and order amidst the melee of scrums, rucks and mauls.
It is thanks to referees like Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes, and the empathy they show in applying the lawbook in the heat of the moment, that respect between players and officials – one of the game’s core values – has remained untarnished over time.
Owens tops the charts, with Barnes a close second, when it comes to test match appearances as a referee.
Here’s our snapshot view of the careers of the Top 10 appearance makers.
1) NIGEL OWENS (98 tests)
The Welshman reached the pinnacle of his profession when he took charge of the Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham in 2015 and now has his sights set on becoming the first referee to bring up a century of tests appearances. Owens broke Jonathan Kaplan’s record of 70 tests when he took charge of Fiji v Tonga in 2016. A superb communicator whose wise-cracking ways have endeared him to the rugby community and beyond.
2) WAYNE BARNES (90 tests)
As a barrister specialising in bribery and corruption any attempts by players to try and hoodwink Wayne Barnes into changing his mind have always fallen on deaf ears. Now in the twilight of his refereeing career, the 41-year-old still has a masterful understanding of the law book and how to translate it into game situations. In his 14 seasons as an international referee, Barnes has taken charge of 20 Six Nations matches –one behind Owens’ record – and appeared at four Rugby World Cups.
3) JONATHAN KAPLAN (70 tests)
Kaplan was the first referee to reach a half-century of tests, having made his debut in Harare in May 1996. On hanging up the whistle in 2013, he had featured in 70 tests during his 17-year career – a record at the time – aged 46. Thirteen of those matches came at the four Rugby World Cups that he attended – in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011, including the semi-final between England and France in 2007. In all, he refereed 425 first-class matches and brought to the game a style and application that was unique.
4=) ROMAIN POITE (69 tests)
Still going strong at 44 years of age, Poite celebrated his 10th anniversary as a Six Nations referee two days before the Ireland v Wales fixture in round two of this year’s Championship. Emphasising the esteem that elite players hold for him, after that match former World Rugby Player of the Year and Ireland captain, Johnny Sexton, said, “he was brilliant to deal with.” Never one afraid to make a bold call, the former Toulouse police detective is one of the few referees to ever yellow card All Black great Richie McCaw, as he did in a Bledisloe Cup match at Eden Park in 2014.
4=) CRAIG JOUBERT (69 tests)
Joubert showed exactly what he was made of in expertly handling the nerve-shredding Rugby World Cup 2011 showpiece between New Zealand and France. That match was undoubtedly the highlight of a stellar career that took in 69 tests. A man for the big occasion, Joubert also refereed multiple Super Rugby finals. He retired from 15s rugby in 2016 but continued to be seen on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series until blowing the whistle for the last and 200th time at the London Sevens in 2018. He now works for World Rugby as a Referee Talent Development Coach.
6) ALAIN ROLLAND (66 tests)
Alain Rolland is one of the few examples of someone who has reached the elite end of rugby as a player and referee. The Irishman won three caps for his country and played 40 times for Leinster before taking up the whistle at the turn of the Millennium. He refereed the Rugby World Cup final in 2007 as well as three Heineken Cup finals. Rolland took charge of his final test match in February 2014 as Wales beat France in Cardiff and has since stepped up to become World Rugby High Performance 15s Match Official Manager.
7) STEVE WALSH (60 tests)
A charismatic Kiwi who represented his native country and Australia as a test match official, from 1998-2014. Walsh took up refereeing at the age of 16 and became the youngest official to make his NPC debut. In 1997, he refereed in his first Super Rugby fixture and took charge of a test match for the first time a year later when Argentina played France. He officiated at four Rugby World Cups, bowing out with France’s quarter-final win over England in 2011. In reference to the personal battles he’s overcome to reach the top, Walsh bears a tattoo on his arm with the words, ‘he who controls himself controls the game’.
8) JÉRÔME GARCÈS (56 tests)
Garcès made history in November when he became the first Frenchman to referee a Rugby World Cup final. South Africa’s win over England in Yokohama – his 11th Rugby World Cup appointment as a referee – brought the curtain down on a glittering final year of his career, after refereeing the European Champions Cup final between Leinster and Saracens, as well as the French Top 14 final between Toulouse and Clermont. The man from Pau is now high performance referee coach for the Fédération Française de Rugby.
9) JACO PEYPER (51 tests)
A lawyer by profession, Peyper learned his trade on the sevens circuit before moving into 15s. Peyper, who recently turned 40, made his test debut as a referee in 2011 and has appeared at two Rugby World Cups. He refereed his 50th test with the Wales v France quarter-final at RWC 2019. In 2017, he took charge of the opening test between the All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions, while in Super Rugby, he set a new record in March this year when making his 111th appearance as the man in the middle.
10) CHRIS WHITE (51 tests)
One of the RFU’S original full-time professional referees, the Gloucestershire-born teacher refereed his first top-level game in 1994 before swapping the classroom for the whistle full-time in 1999. White appeared in the Rugby World Cup of that year, before refereeing at two more tournaments. He took charge of the never-to-be-forgotten semi-final between Australia and New Zealand in 2003 and was favourite for the final had England not made it through. As well as his three Rugby World Cups and 51 tests, White refereed three European Champions Cup finals, two Celtic League finals and 190 Premiership games.