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Tom Foley

Tom Foley, is a man of integrity and precision, with an unwavering drive for excellence. 

Over a 17 year career he has seen just about every complex scenario that professional rugby officiating might unveil, and he’s handled it with a grace and resilience that stands him apart.

 

With a career that, to date, has seen him officiate in 48 International Tests, four Champions Cup finals, and over 200 Premiership games, Tom’s journey to the pinnacle of international rugby, stands him firmly with the greatest professional referees in the sport. 

Beyond the accolades and the challenges lies the story of a man who embodies fairness, enjoyment, and above all the true spirit of rugby.

In this candid, in-depth interview with me, Tom opens up about the trials and triumphs of his well documented career, the weight of responsibility that comes with making split-second decisions with monumental implications, and the personal values that have guided him through moments of intense scrutiny and pressure. 

Reflecting on the high-profile 2023 Rugby World Cup Final between New Zealand and South Africa, a game that saw him officiate as the TMO and which saw All Blacks skipper Sam Cane become the first player to be sent off in a RWC final, he gives an honest, raw account of the decisions made, as an officiating team, and the very personal impact that followed. 

In this feature length interview, he shares with me his thoughts on accountability, the impact of social media on the sport, and his decision to step back from international rugby.

What I found in meeting Tom for the first time was a man who, at the pinnacle of his career, had experienced the absolute worst of human behaviour, simply for delivering a world-class performance in the most pressured arena imaginable. I am not going to sugar coat it, the backlash he received from some so-called rugby fans, was simply appalling. And there is no excuse. Period. 

 

What I came to understand, in meeting Tom, is that he is an impossibly decent man of integrity and value. I thank you Tom for being so open and vulnerable with me and for showing me the very human side of a man who has walked a path very few will ever do.

 

I am genuinely proud to represent you at 360 Tom, and to support you as you move forward.

 

Enjoy this interview. Stay inspired. Stay curious. Most importantly, stay kind. 

 

Tracey

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Tracey: Tom you have had, and continue to have, a remarkable career at the pinnacle of rugby, as a world-renowned referee and TMO. Let’s go back to the beginning, to where it all began. What steered you towards the game? 

 

TomTo be honest, it was a bit of being in the right place at the right time, or maybe the wrong place, depending on how you look at it. At Bristol University, I found myself in charge of the intramural rugby league, but we hit a snag – not enough referees for our games. So, I hatched a plan, thinking it brilliant at the time, to have each team provide a referee candidate. We’d cover the course fee, making us self-sufficient. It seemed only fair that I lead by example and take the course myself. That's where my unexpected journey into refereeing began. Nobody really aims to become a referee; it's often where you land when playing isn't an option. But before I knew it, what started as a practical solution at uni had me climbing the ranks to the national panel and then turning professional within just a few years.

 

 

Tracey: That’s a rapid ascent in anyone’s book. Can you talk us through the journey from refereeing at Uni to realising this could be more than just a sideline task? What were the key moments, or influences, that had you taking that path seriously?

 

Tom: It wasn't something I had planned from the start. Initially, it was more about filling a need within the university league, but once I started, I found I really enjoyed the challenge and the dynamics of the game from a referee's perspective. After graduating in 2008 with my Master's in Civil Engineering, I continued refereeing locally and somehow, my hobby started getting more serious attention.

 

By 2011, I found myself on the national panel, which was a bit of a wake-up call about the potential this path had. It wasn't just about being on the pitch anymore; it was about understanding the game at a deeper level. By 2013, when I joined the elite referee unit, I knew this was more than just a post-uni side gig. This was a profession where I could make a significant impact, contribute to the sport I love, and continually challenge myself.

 

It's funny, looking back, I never would've pegged myself as 'Tom Foley, the professional referee.' It was a blend of opportunity, a bit of serendipity, and a lot of hard work. Balancing this with my background in engineering, running a firm in Bath, gave me a unique perspective on discipline, structure, and the importance of clear communication, both on and off the field.

 

 

Tracey: Is it fair to say that professional refereeing can be all consuming?

 

Tom: Yes, it can be all-consuming, without a doubt. You're constantly on edge, not just because of the inherent unpredictability of the game, but also because, as a referee, you're somewhat at the mercy of how the teams decide to play. We've got this saying that hits the nail on the head: “You can’t make a bad game good, but you can make a good game bad”.  At the end of the day, the game is about the players, and we have to react to that. 

 

And yes, the level of scrutiny we're under is something else. Every match feels like you're under a microscope, not just by the management or your peers, but by fans, the media, pretty much everyone with an opinion on the game. It's a cycle of highs and lows, each week building up to the game itself, then there's the aftermath, and before you know it, you're gearing up for the next one. It's like being on a treadmill that doesn't have a 'stop' button.

 

For instance, last season was a marathon for me – 58 matches from mid-June right through to the end of May, with barely a weekend to catch my breath. It's a relentless pace, and after years of this rhythm, you really start to feel it. That's why, whenever there's a chance to step back, even for a bit, it's like a breath of fresh air. Just to ease off that pressure, recharge, and, well, try to find some semblance of normalcy outside the rugby pitch.

 

Tracey: How did these pressures evolve as you moved from domestic rugby to the international stage, and what were some unexpected aspects of this shift that you had to navigate?

 

Tom: That definitely cranked up the pressure. The scrutiny you face in the Premiership is one thing, but on the international stage, it's a whole other ball game. Suddenly, every player on the field is a household name, and the spotlight is intensely magnified. What struck me most, was the precision and accuracy required, not just in decisions, but in communication. It's true when they say that a well-communicated decision, even if not perfect, can be more acceptable than a correct decision poorly explained.

 

The most obvious difference was the heightened level of scrutiny and accountability, particularly from high-profile teams and coaches. After a Test series in New Zealand, it became evident that teams like the All Blacks and Springboks prepare meticulously, analysing officiating patterns as part of their strategic planning. This level of attention was a clear indicator of the elevated standards and expectations at the international stage, underscoring the critical role of precision and consistency in refereeing at this level.”

 

This level of competitive scrutiny demands a thick skin and a resilient mindset. It's not about painting a negative picture; it's about the heightened level of accountability and the relentless pursuit of excellence that defines international rugby. That was a significant adjustment, navigating this ultra-competitive and scrutinised environment.

 

Tracey: Your friend and colleague Wayne Barnes is often heard to say "You're not here to be popular." How does this principle guide your approach, especially knowing that not every decision will be met with approval?

 

Tom: That understanding is a constant reminder that our job as referees isn't about seeking approval or being liked; it's about making fair and just decisions, regardless of their popularity. It's tempting and human nature to want that positive affirmation from players, coaches, or fans, but that can't sway our judgement. You learn to develop a thick skin because, at the end of the day, players like Antoine Dupont might respect you, but their main concern is winning, not whether they genuinely know or care about you personally.

 

This principle also parallels experiences in the corporate world, where mutual respect among leaders and competitors exists, but trust is cautious and everyone is looking for an edge. 

 

As referees, we're often seen as a potential barrier to a team's success, which puts us under careful scrutiny. Again, this isn’t about being negative; it's about understanding the dynamics at play and navigating them with integrity. So, adhering to the principle of not aiming to be popular helps maintain our focus on the integrity of the game, ensuring that our decisions are fair, unbiased, and made with the best intentions for the sport.

 

Tracey: Let’s talk about that Red Card against The New Zealand Captain in the Rugby World Cup final. That was a huge decision, that certainly didn’t do anything to help with your popularity in the southern hemisphere. 

 

Tom: The incident involving the red card was a defining moment, indeed. Such decisions in a World Cup final are never taken lightly and are far removed from considerations of popularity. They underscore the profound trust and collective commitment we share as a team of officials, dedicated to upholding the integrity of the game.

 

This particular decision was ultimately made by the bunker, but I was acutely aware that my initiation of the review process carried the possibility of leading to significant consequences, including a yellow or red card for the All Blacks captain during such a pivotal match. Our countless hours of preparation, candid discussions, and mutual support underpin our ability to navigate these high-pressure situations, ensuring that every call we make is grounded in fairness and accuracy, regardless of the immense pressure.

 

And yes, controversy follows such decisions, especially when it involves a team captain in a match of that magnitude. It's expected. But it was never about undermining anyone's efforts or choosing sides. It was about upholding the game's integrity, even if it meant facing backlash. The documentary 'Whistleblowers' touched on this, showing the weight of responsibility we carry, not just for the game in front of us but for rugby's spirit and legacy.

 

So, while that red card might not have won me fans in certain corners of the world, it was a testament to our commitment as a team to the game's fairness and respect. And at the end of the day, that's the responsibility that comes with the whistle and the role we play as officiators. 

 

Tracey: It’s fair to say that the entire rugby community felt the weight of that decision. How do you mentally and emotionally prepare yourself to stay focused and impartial in moments like that?

 

Tom: In a cauldron like the World Cup final, it’s all about the groundwork we lay long before the whistle blows. Our team had a solid history of navigating high-stakes matches together, which really set the stage. We knew each other's strengths, had shared visions how we wanted to deal with the ‘big moments’, and had honed our collective strategy over years, not just weeks.

 

It's not just about being mentally alert; it's about maintaining a state of deliberate calmness. And it isn't about suppressing emotions; it's about channeling them constructively, sticking to our philosophies and the game plan we've rehearsed relentlessly. And when you're in the thick of it, when every call you make could tilt history, that preparation, that mutual trust, that shared commitment to impartiality and fairness, is your true north.

 

It's funny, you think the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but in those moments, it's the trust within your team, the confidence in your preparation, and your adherence to the game's core values that guide you. The atmosphere, the stakes, the buzz around a World Cup final—they all fade into the background, and it becomes about doing justice to the game. 

 

Tracey: Deliberate calmness. Can you expand on that and how it impacts decision making?

 

Tom: Deliberate calmness, it's a bit like standing in the eye of the storm, really. With all the noise, the tension, and everything at stake on the field, you've got to keep your cool when it comes to making those big calls. Keeping your head when everyone else is losing theirs. This approach isn't just about deciding what happens next in the game; it's about how you put it across, making sure everyone buys into it. It's all about getting people on board with your call, sort of 'selling' it to them, so they're right there with you. That's how you build trust, keep your credibility in check, and make sure the game's always played fair and square.

 

And again, it’s about trust in your preparation, in the processes you've honed over countless games. Each call, especially in a match where history is at stake, is about being true to the game's integrity, not about seeking the limelight. You make those tough calls with the same conviction, whether it's the opening minutes or the dying seconds of a World Cup final.

 

That sense of calm doesn't mean the pressure isn't felt; it's about channeling it, ensuring that the decisions made are not about us as officials imposing ourselves on the game, but about ensuring fairness and respect for the game's laws. It's a fine line, maintaining that impartiality and focus, especially when the game's pace and stakes are so high.

 

Tracey: Given the unprecedented number of referrals during that particular final, compared to previous World Cup Finals, where there were none, could you share some insights into what contributed to this anomaly?

 

Tom: From the start it was clear this wasn't going to be your run-of-the-mill final. Just a couple of minutes in, and we were looking at a potential card for a player dropping their weight on another's leg, a move that's been under the spotlight recently. I remember thinking, "Here we go, two minutes into the World Cup final and I might be making a decision that could tilt the game." It's a heavy responsibility, but you can't shy away from it.

 

Then there was the red card incident with Sam Cane. When a player stays down injured we need to find out how that injury happened. It forces you to take a closer look, and sometimes what you find leads to tough decisions, like potentially sending off a team captain. It sets a tone, not just for the game, but for the scrutiny you're under as a referee.

 

Half-time was a moment to catch our breath, reflect on the magnitude of what had transpired, and brace for the second half. But the game kept delivering those heart-in-mouth moments, like when Kolisi (the South African Captain) made contact with an opponent's head. It's not just about making calls on the field; it's about understanding the broader implications of those calls on the game and its integrity.

 

The challenge, especially in a World Cup final, is to stick to your principles, even when every fiber of your being knows the world is watching and judging your every move. It's about finding that balance between following the letter of the law and preserving the spirit of the game. And let me tell you, it's a fine line to walk, especially when decisions could influence the outcome of the most significant match in rugby.

 

Even when you know you've done your job to the best of your ability and upheld the game's values, there's always that lingering question of "What will the reaction be?" It's a unique pressure, one that's hard to describe unless you've been in the thick of it, making those split-second decisions that could echo through rugby history.

Tracey: In light of the significant personal impact that decisions made in that game have had, how do you find balance and maintain perspective, especially when the line between professional challenges and personal well-being becomes blurred? And what would you say to young referees wanting to move ahead in the game?

 

Tom: I won’t lie. It’s been a real challenge. You're right, the impact of our decisions extends far beyond the pitch, touching not just our lives but those around us—friends, family, the wider rugby community. It's a sobering thought, really, how something as seemingly straightforward as a game can weave into the fabric of your existence, altering its course in ways you never anticipated.

 

This journey, for all its highs, isn't without its lows. The scrutiny, the pressure, the constant threat of criticism—it's part and parcel of the role. And while it's an immense honour to be at the heart of such pivotal moments in rugby history, it's also a hefty burden to bear.

 

To the young referees eager to step into this arena, I always say, "Tread carefully." The allure of the professional game is undeniable, but it's not without its challenges. Being in the crosshairs, ready to be taken down for every call you make, requires a resilience not everyone is prepared for.

 

So, how do I keep it all in perspective? It's about recognising the bigger picture, understanding that while rugby is a significant part of our lives, it's not the be-all and end-all. Events and causes outside the sport remind us of the real battles being fought every day. They ground me, reminding me that what we do is important, yes, but it's part of a much larger picture. 

Tracey: What’s your final word on the significant threats you’ve received and your decision to step back from international rugby following the world cup final? As we speak, we’ve just heard news that arrests have been made in New Zealand. 

 

Tom: It's crucial to differentiate between constructive criticism, which is part and parcel of our roles, and the kind of vitriol that oversteps all bounds of decency. Yes, referees should be open to scrutiny and learning from mistakes; it's how we improve. But the recent threats, they've crossed a line far beyond professional accountability, targeting not just me but my family, too.

 

Hearing about arrests does bring a sense of relief, not for the sake of retribution, but as a deterrent, perhaps giving pause to someone else before they lash out online. It's about setting a precedent that while disagreement and debate are an important part of a game that is inherently ‘grey’, there's a boundary that shouldn't be crossed.

 

Deciding to step back wasn't easy, but it was necessary, not just for my personal wellbeing but as a stand against a growing trend that threatens the very values rugby stands for. If our actions, as difficult as they've been, can foster a more respectful environment, then it's a step in the right direction. It's about preserving the integrity of the game for future generations, ensuring that rugby remains a sport marked by its fierce, respectful competition, not marred by the kind of hostility that no one should have to face.

 

Tracey: Tom, you have garnered so much respect from your peers and the rugby community. How do you want to be remembered? What legacy do you hope to leave behind for future generations? 

 

Tom: At the heart of it, I hope to be remembered not just as Tom Foley the referee but as Tom, a decent bloke who did his job with integrity and a genuine love for the game. I'd like to think that my approach to the game, fair and respectful, with a sense of enjoyment even in its most intense moments, is what stands out.

 

More than anything, I want to leave behind a legacy that emphasises the human aspect behind the whistle. That in the heat of the game, amidst all the decisions and scrutiny, there's a person making those calls, doing their best to uphold the spirit of rugby. If I can inspire even a handful of future referees to approach the game with the same balance of seriousness and joy, to treat every player and decision with fairness and respect, then I'd say that's a legacy worth leaving. It's about making the game better, not just through the calls made on the field but through the example set off it.

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