When Mike Adamson runs out at Twickenham to officiate the England v Italy Six Nations match in under a fortnight’s time, it will be a significant moment for Scottish rugby and for him on a personal level.

News of Adamson’s appointment for the fixture back in December came as a timely boost after the disappointment of the cancelled game between England and the Barbarians, which he was due to referee, while for the Scottish Rugby Union it is something of a watershed moment.

Incredibly 19 years have passed since Rob Dickson was the last Scottish referee to take charge of a men's Six Nations match.

“It’s obviously been a very long time coming and it’s not been for a lack of trying. It is just, for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to do it,” admitted Andrew Macpherson, SRU Referee Development Manager and High Performance Referee Coach.

“It’s nice to get that monkey off the back, I suppose, and get that recognition for the work that has gone on over the last few years to get us this stage.”

For a brief time at the start of Dickson’s test career, both he and seasoned Rugby World Cup referee Jim Fleming represented Scotland on the international stage.

But from having two at the top, Scotland’s stock of test-level refereeing talent dried up. In 2013, though, the arrival of renowned South African official, Tappe Henning, as Referee Commissioner, coincided with an upturn in fortunes.

“Between Tappe, Dave Pearson (ex-RFU referee) and myself, we took on the responsibility for elite referee coaching. With their international refereeing background, Tappe and Dave have brought a lot to the table,” said Macpherson.

“Probably the biggest thing that we have changed and worked on is to make sure that our coaching philosophy is in line with World Rugby, EPCR, PRO14 etcetera, so we are not going off on a tangent.

“And talent identification has been a big thing for us in making sure we have a steady stream of people coming through so we avoid another 19/20-year gap between Six Nations appointments.

“Underneath the elite panel, we’ve got a national panel of referees, who do a lot of our domestic competitions, and then we’ve got a development squad, where we work with local societies to try and identify future people. There is a bit more of a clear identifiable pathway for us to develop our officials.”

Humble beginnings

While Adamson was well-known to everyone in Scottish rugby through his exploits as a player with Scotland Sevens and as a National Cup winner with Glasgow Hawks, Macpherson will have been one of the few people to witness his debut out in the middle.

A graduate of Glasgow University, Adamson’s refereeing journey began with a midweek fixture, Glasgow University Vets against the Glasgow University Medics.

“I refereed Mike when he was playing, and when he was coming towards the end of his playing career, he got in touch with me and I went down to watch him doing a game at Glasgow University; I remember it vividly; it was a freezing cold, Monday night in November,” said Macpherson, who had five years on the circuit as a full-time referee.

“Nobody had coached Mike but I could see then there was natural movement and decision making in his refereeing and we kept in touch as he was transitioning between playing and refereeing.

“I think his playing background really helps the refereeing in terms of understanding the game, reading the game and understanding what teams are trying to achieve. For Mike it is just about taking the opportunities.”

Adamson made the transition from player to referee a few months shy of his 30th birthday and says gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of the laws, and knowing when to apply them, was the hardest challenge initially.

“When I was a player, I probably thought I understood them (the laws), 100 per cent. But when you become a referee you realise you probably only know 70 to 80 per cent. Even on the pitch now in professional games, players will come up to you and ask you about certain laws that they think they know but you have to try and tell them ‘no, actually that is not correct’.

“When you first start out you probably over-ref the game a little bit because you have all this new knowledge of laws and you probably over-apply them.

“It is just really trying to get that balance between knowing the laws and knowing when to blow the whistle and when not to blow the whistle.”

Meteoric rise

On earning positive reviews for his performances, the big opportunities were not long in coming for the former fly-half.

A member of the West of Scotland Referee Society, the Stirling-born official made his PRO12 debut in 2016, and later that year he landed a dream trip to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where he refereed Fiji’s 20-5 win against Japan in the men’s semi-final.

His 15s test debut as a referee came the following year and then, in May 2019, he was honoured to be asked to take charge of the Leinster v Munster PRO14 semi-final.

The England v Barbarians game would have been his highest profile international fixture yet but while that opportunity fell by the wayside, Heineken Champions Cup appointments and the Georgia v Fiji game in the final round of the Autumn Nations Cup gave him a platform to showcase his ability.

Considering the terrible conditions at Murrayfield and Fiji’s rustiness, the match was surprisingly entertaining and Adamson came out with plenty of credit.

“I guess after the disappointment of the England v Barbarians game it was another good opportunity that came around pretty quickly. Sometimes you don’t know when the next one will come so that was pleasing,” he said.

“With the Fijian team you didn’t know what sort of performance they would put in because they’d been in quarantine and hadn’t played. But the teams came out and played some good rugby and the scrums were good. That was an area that I’d identified might be a challenge in the game and a couple of early penalties that I gave seemed to sort it out. There was a lot of ball in, ball out of the scrum after that.”

Shortly after, Adamson learned of his historic Six Nations appointment after receiving a phone call from World Rugby’s interim match officials’ manager Paddy O’Brien.

“It was a very nice surprise and obviously something I am looking forward to. I’ve played and refereed sevens at Twickenham and it is a cracking venue.”

Snowball effect

Growing up in Dollar, to the east of Stirling, Adamson probably once dreamed of scoring Six Nations tries at English rugby’s HQ rather than awarding them like Fleming and Dickson.

“I don’t think their posters were ever up on my wall when I was growing up, it was probably more the Andrew Mehrtens, the Craig Chalmers and the Gavin Hastings. I don’t think anyone ever grows up wanting to be a test match referee, I guess it is just kind of something that comes along.”

For Scotland, they hadn’t come along very often at test level until Adamson and fellow full-time professional referees, Hollie Davidson, Sam Grove-White and Ben Blain, emerged through the revitalised system.

“It seemed like a bit of a barrier that we were struggling to get across and now that I am stepping into the Six Nations, I am hoping there will be a bit of a snowball effect and we’ll consistently have guys refereeing tier one internationals again.”

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