Pierre Brousset has made no secret of his delight and pride at having been selected by Joel Jutge, Head of Match Officials at World Rugby, to join the panel of referees for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship.
He will be in charge of one match – the Ireland v Italy game on 11 February, as part of an all-French officiating team that includes Mathieu Raynal and Luc Ramos. It is a thrill and the source of much pride for the man who watched the tournament with his family in front of the fireplace when he was a kid.
"When I was young, I never thought that one day I'd be on the whistle, and as I've said in the past, I didn't even think about refereeing when I was watching the games," he laughs.
"It really came later, during my youth years, when I refereed matches, but really out of curiosity. Then, when I was about 17 and a half, I thought why not give it a go? But really by chance. And in fact, within a year, it became a passion. I went deeper into the work and made the decision to stop playing and try to reach the top level. And, amazingly, that's what I do for a living now.”
"Rugby World Cup was fantastic"
Familiar with all the club competitions in France and Europe, a bit of rugby sevens and under 20s, Pierre has so far refereed just eight tests since his debut: Malta v Israel in 2017. The encounter at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on 11 February will be his very first time as referee of two established nations.
Over the years, Pierre has officiated mainly from the touchline, supporting and observing his colleagues with professionalism and enthusiasm. During Rugby World Cup 2023 in France, for example, he was involved in seven matches.
"As far as I'm concerned, it was fantastic," he remembers, cheerfully. "Experiencing my first World Cup in France in magnificent stadiums, in an incredible atmosphere, whatever the match... I went from an extraordinary England v Chile match to an incredible Fiji v Portugal match, while also officiating on an England v Fiji match in quarter-finals...
"There were matches on paper that looked less spectacular or with less standing, but in fact all the teams produced some enjoyable rugby. And the atmosphere around all the matches made it an incredible event. For me, it was a great pleasure to be able to share it with friends and family at certain times."
With such a CV that includes the world's greatest competitions, is it fair to say that he has already done almost everything? "I'm starting to have done quite a few things, but not everything," he corrects.
"It's an extra step this year in the centre of the field, it's a new step. It's something I've never done before, so I'm learning with a lot of enthusiasm, and I hope there'll be more to come so I can say I've done everything."
Ultimate goal: Australia 2027?
On his personal agenda, of course, is another longer-term goal: Rugby World Cup 2027 in Australia, when he will be 38. Would refereeing the world's biggest rugby event be the ultimate goal, the apotheosis of his career?
"I don't know because four years is both short and long," he replies after pausing for a moment. "Of course, we're starting a new cycle. Of course, the objective after that World Cup was clear: now I wanted to be a central referee, to take things to the next level; a level that is achieved through continuity, quite simply.
"I'm going to get this opportunity, and it's up to me to respond. I'm just going to take one match at a time, season after season, and evolve with those matches. Because if I start thinking about four years from now, I could miss out on a lot. And the goal is to be eligible for selection or to aspire to it."
Listening to him, you'd think you were listening to a rugby player preparing for his next match with one eye on the previous one, but without skipping stages for fear of stumbling. Like a player, the referee is constantly striving for excellence.
"The competition comes thick and fast, every Saturday. You can make mistakes from one match to the next," he admits. "I started again after the World Cup, after four-and-a-half months without taking the whistle. The first match went rather well, the second not so well; in terms of management, I wasn't satisfied.
"And in fact, you say to yourself that you have to get back into it, you have to switch back, you have to work again, you have to get back into the swing of things. And that's why if I'd been thinking about the European Cup straight away, for example, I'd have been on the wrong track and missed the next step.
"By concentrating from one match to the next, you have to use the mistakes you made the weekend before to try and erase them. And that's how you make progress, little by little, and that helps you build experience, precision and consistency."
"Setting an example"
What stands out when Pierre Brousset talks about his job – he has been working full-time since 2018 for both the French Rugby Federation (FFR) and the National Rugby League (LNR) – is the passion for refereeing that emanates from his words.
More than ever, referees are being scrutinised, studied, and even abused, which raises questions about the future. For Pierre, this is a great opportunity to bring the rugby community together to keep this passion intact.
"I think that everyone involved in rugby needs to preserve this role and commit to maintaining the respect we have for rugby. I think that we, as referees, have a role to play in that our communication is important, as is whether we accept criticism. And the players and coaches also have a role to play in maintaining respect for the referee and not criticising decisions, quite simply to set a good example," he says.