GET TO KNOW THE REF: Andrew Brace

A former rugby union player having played for Old Crescent and the Belgium national rugby union team, Andrew was encouraged to take up refereeing by John Lacey which saw him quickly rise through the ranks to the top of the sport representing the Irish Rugby Football Union. Brace has refereed matches in the Pro14, the European Rugby Challenge Cup and the European Rugby Champions Cup before moving onto International test matches.

We spoke to Andrew (or Bracey) as he’s known to many in the sport, to find out what makes him tick.

Name: Andrew Brace

Age: I’m 32, yeah pushing on a bit 😊

Height: 5”11

Fitness regime: When I first started, fitness/training side of things was your own individual responsibility so having come away from a team environment that was a new challenge, which wasn’t always fun on the usual cold Irish winter nights. However, in the last few years since moving into a High-performance environment it’s been a nice shift to train together alongside my fellow professional referees. This mainly involves on feet speed & endurance pitch sessions to off feet strength & power in the gym. The days leading into a weekend my focus would move more around prehab & mobility work with a keen interest in yoga as of late. 

Hometown: I live in Limerick, I’ve been here for the last 10 years, but my family are based in Wales in Cardiff. I was only meant to be here for a year, but one year led to another and 10 years later they can’t get rid of me!

First memory of Rugby: I played a bit of rugby at primary school, but was quite late when I started playing at a club, probably about 13 years old. My first, and funniest, memory when I was in primary school was one of my first games, and we needed to score to win the game. The ball came to me on the wing, it was probably my only touch of the game, before sprinting down the wing for the winning score. I dived over the line, hand in the air celebrating only to realise it was the 22, not the try line. Hilarious now looking back, but at the time I don’t think my mates were laughing!

No of years refereeing: I was 24 when I finished playing, I just couldn’t continue playing at that level in the all-Ireland League, and referee at the same time, so I turned my focus fully to refereeing at that point. I had to make that decision then because I was coaching with Munster rugby as well so I just couldn’t do it all. Johnny Lacey was the one who approached me and saw potential in me I guess but deep down was probably sick of me giving out about referees every Monday morning so told me to put the whistle where my mouth was….  I just took each game as it came and 8 years later here I am.

No of games refereed (prem/international/total): This week (Jan, 2021) is my 60th pro 14 game and I’m up to 15 internationals, with another 32 running the touch. 

First game as a ref: For my first game I did a Munster development match here against Garryowen FC. A good game with a lot of Munster development academy players on show. It was a really good free flowing game to do which was great and I learned a hell of a lot! 

First professional game as a ref: Dave McHugh (my referee coach at the time) really threw me in at the deep end for this one. It was only three months after I started refereeing and he put me straight into a British and Irish Cup game. I’ll never forget it, Gala against Leeds… I was chasing shadows for the first half but you learn so much from those games and I knew he wouldn’t have put me into that match if he didn’t think I was able.

First international as a ref: England v Barbarians match was my first test but it wasn’t a capped International as they’re not capped games, so my first full International was out in Calgary in 2017 with Georgia against Canada. I will never forget it. We arrived the day before to about 28 degrees, a lovely day in Calgary, but the next day the temperature went through the floor with wind chill in the minuses! It was that cold that one of the players had to go to hospital with hypothermia and we had to have a hot shower at half time just to warm up. My first Tier one International was the following year – Argentina v Wales.

Favourite stadium to ref in? For me personally I’d lean towards the likes of Clermont, Marcel Michelin stadium or the Stade Mayol in Toulon, even la Rochelle when I did la Rochelle v Gloucester in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup a few years ago. The atmosphere in those places is electric which always lifts the intensity of those matches in Europe and so they are very special games to be involved in.

Who is your sporting hero? Joost van der Westhuizen was always the player I admired growing up, as a scrum half myself I related a lot to the way he played but Paul O’Connell would be up there for me. Just seeing what he achieved and gave to the game. A guy who was just so ferocious on the field and his will to win would rise to any occasion, yet the moment the final whistle went, he’d almost be a different person who would be the first to give up time to help you out. 

Joost was a key player when South Africa won the 1995 World Cup on home soil against the All Blacks

What is your ACME whistle of choice? I’ve always used an ACME Thunder – A 58.5 I think it is. Although I’ve changed my main whistle a few times, my spare is always one I take with me in games as it was one my sister got engraved for me in my first professional game – ‘Embrace life’s dreams’. 

Biggest moment in your career: I would say it was getting my first Six Nations game last year France v Italy. That’s the pinnacle I think for a lot of referees. Obviously refereeing at a World Cup would be incredible, but Six Nations matches would be the top for me. 

Who inspired you to pick up the whistle? I’d have to say Johnny Lacey. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now if it wasn’t for his support. He’s a close friend of mine and he’s the type of person that will always put others before himself and give 110% to help you succeed. Having somebody in your corner like that is invaluable for your development.

Which area of the game is the hardest to referee? Certainly the breakdown would be up there, there’s so much going on now and with an average of 190 rucks a game you can find a penalty at almost every breakdown. I believe the changes made since 2015 RWC have certainly helped with a stronger focus on the tackler to allow quicker ball – and that’s what everybody wants to see at the end of the day. Without moving into a different area of the game, I would also say lineout maul is becoming much harder to referee, because again there’s just so much to look at in a split moment.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen on a rugby pitch? It was my first European Cup game live on Sky Sports and into the first 20 minutes I get bumped over by James Haskell and my whistle goes straight into the mud. It was only 2 minutes later when I needed to blow the whistle for a penalty that I realised the whistle was completely filled with mud as nothing was happening and the players continuing playing – a referees’ worst nightmare! Luckily enough the players eventually stopped – but we then had to search the Ricoh Arena to find a spare one. Needless to say, I now always carry my spare with me. 

Who is the best player you’ve refereed? There are so many great players out there, but I would have to say a Rory Best or Sam Warburton would be up there. Two great players who would leave it all out there but really forced you to make decisions as a referee, particularly when jackling for a turnover – they were both relentless as they competed at every opportunity so every breakdown a decision would have to be made.

Who is the toughest player you’ve refereed? I think one of the toughest players I’ve refereed would be Marcel Coetzee. He’s such a physical player who never takes a backward step. 

What three things would you take to a desert island? I’d have to go practical. I love my food so a knife; probably an inflatable raft so you have to get off the island at the same stage but also you need a shelter; and my Acme whistle of course for attention 😉

Do you have any hidden talents? The one that always comes up is that I played the violin a lot when I was younger, I got to grade 8 before I focused on sport so I’d say I was ok at that. My claim to fame was playing with Gethin Jones as his mother was my violin teacher in school!

Who would be your three dream dinner party guests, and why? I think David Attenborough would be awesome; maybe a bit of Ed Sheeran for the music and can’t forget Margot Robbie to top it off…. Mrs won’t be pleased with that one lol!

Singer Ed Sheeran chats to Actor Damian Lewis

What would you like to achieve outside of rugby? I think I’d like a fresh challenge after being involved in player/coach development for 10 years but you never say never. I’ve always wanted to start my own business or maybe work in Sports Nutrition. I might even pick up the violin up again ! 

Which two teams would you love to referee? There are so many special games I’d love to be involved in, but I think topping the list at present would be Australia v South Africa – as they’re two International teams I haven’t reffed yet.

How do you prepare for a game? Do you have a pre-game ritual? I didn’t until a few years ago when my grandmother passed and I was handed down her old school whistle by my late Father. I was really close to my Nan who was from Belgium, and during the war she was a teacher and refereed the odd basketball games. My Nan never threw anything away and Dad found this whistle when sorting out some of her things in the house and knew just the right home for it. So now I always have that hanging over my jersey before I go on the pitch.

Are any of your family also referees? Does it run in the family? No – I’m the first. 

To find out more about whistles for referees or coaching, visit www.acmewhistles.co.uk.

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