The man in the middle
Published 25/08/2015 | 00:00
SENDING 18 stone battle-hardened rugby giants off the pitch is not for the faint hearted, but for New Ross man and Elite IRFU referee, Gary Conway, it's all in a day's work.
The former championship winning Horeswood footballer and former professional rugby player in Italy refereed the Munster Grenoble game at Thomond Park earlier this month and has a big year ahead of him as he aims to break into the top tier of world rugby refereeing. Aged only 33, Conway has already had the opportunity to savour the atmosphere at major Heineken Cup matches as an assistant referee and been involved in reffing in the European Challenge Cup and Pro 12 this year.
From Southknock, New Ross, Conway took time out during his summer break to speak to the local newspaper about his career and about the injury which threatened to stop him in his tracks. Conway said he had a busy summer working at the Junior World Cup U20s which is a breeding ground for up and coming professional players.
'It's a long season. You start on August 1 and finish in July. It's all about being physically able to do the job. If you don't have the legs and you get tired, your mind gets tired and that is where the poor decisions are made. You have to park any mistakes, otherwise an "Oh no" moment leads to a lot more "Oh no's" in your head.'
Like all modern referees, Conway trains up to five times a week which includes on field work, gym and Pilates.
'We have a full nutrition and training programme. We are expected to fly out the day before a game and come back the day after. Everywhere you go you meet someone who has been to Hook Lighthouse, Loftus Hall or the Dunbrody famine ship. It's a world sport but it's a village really as everyone knows everyone. That's the beauty of sport.'
A regular face at New Ross RFC since he was a child of five, Conway has never forgotten where he comes from to the extent that whenever he is refereeing a big game or working as an assistant at a European Rugby Champions Cup match, he is conscious of what people back in New Ross are thinking (shouting) as they watch the game in the Theatre Tavern, Spider's, Jimmy's or Mannions, which are all renowned rugby pubs.
'As a kid I played rugby, GAA and soccer with a gang of around 14 of us from Southknock. You didn't see iPads or have those kind of distractions back then.'
He was coached at Good Counsel College by Aidan O'Brien at a time when the secondary school team went on an amazing run, losing only once over a six year period.
'We won the All Ireland and five Leinster Medals in my time there and it really helped me with my process of keeping fit. It's great to see the school mirror that success again.'
The talented sportsman played with Leinster Youths, Irish Colleges in rugby and with the Wexford minor football team. He won two senior titles with Horeswood and having watched his team play the Starlights recently, felt a huge desire to line out for them again.
'I was busy playing all sports growing up. It was a big commitment. My mom Miriam was great having all my gear ready and my Dad Ger drove me the length and breadth of the country'
Conway had a wanderlust and he satisfied that by travelling to New Zealand and Canada where he played rugby at a high level. Aged 25, at the peak of his powers, he got a compound fracture which put him out of action for 18 months. Upon his return he broke his cheek three minutes into a game which put him out for another eight weeks. Undeterred he moved to Italy, playing two seasons with a professional team outside of Milan. While there he learned Italian and he is presently progressing his French. Being multi-lingual in rugby is a huge advantage, Conway says.
'It's key for us professionally. It helps you have player buy in which makes everything run smoother on the pitch.'
Conway said he feels as fit as ever, adding that he misses playing a team sport. 'I miss playing football. It's very like rugby. You have all the camaraderie there.'
Conway said a referee's life can be lonely at times, living between different hotels in different parts of the world. He has made some good friends on the circuit, however, and is good friends with Nigel Owens, who recently gave an excellent talk in The Brandon House Hotel in New Ross recently.
'You do it because you love it. You wouldn't do it otherwise. We get very well looked after and it's great to be able to see the world. I've had the pleasure of visiting Dubai, Las Vegas, Moscow, Tobago and all over Europe since I started.'
Conway has a degree in software development from WIT and he works for the IRFU as a Video Referee Analyst. He lives in Dublin. When he is home he tries to meet up with friends, but as he works weekends, it can prove difficult. He got into refereeing after he broke his leg.
'I spoke with David Keane who worked with the Leinster referees and enquired about getting into refereeing as I wanted to keep in the game. I proved that I could come back, but mentally it was tough.'
He attended a beginner's course and progressed. He is now on a Level II contract, meaning he can ref Pro12 and European rugby games, along with Tier II internationals.
'My career is at a crossroads now. This is a big year for me and hopefully I can push on and progress.'
One of the biggest games he was in charge of was Georgia against Romania, which was a fiery affair.
He also referees live training sessions in the senior Leinster camp.
'You have to be mentally right. Sometimes I can't sleep for two days after a game because my mind just can't slow down.'
Conway runs on average 8km per game and will make over 400 decisions in a single game 'so when a referee gets one or two wrong you might be more forgiving now'.
'You have to ensure your body is right so you don't pick up any niggly injuries. Body maintenance is a key part of recovery as we travel a lot you need to keep on top of any niggle you feel.'
He said Owen Doyle and David McHugh have been massive influences to him.
'They are both world class coaches and have the results to prove it, I have had the pleasure of working with both in the amateur and professional game. After every game I sit down and talk with Owen on the Monday or Tuesday. I have a performance reviewer in the stand at every game and I'm microphoned up to him. After the game he will come into the dressing room and we will speak openly about the performance about some good things and some bad things. We will both review from DVD and write separate reports online and when we are finished we will finalise the report. The key is to improve every week and put the wrongs right and to be open and honest so you can learn.'
Conway is looking forward to the coming months.
'This year will be very interesting as all the Tier 1 referees are at the world cup and will be away for the first few months. I hope to progress to work with John Lacey and George Clancy more, who are our Tier I referees both going to the World Cup.'
He described referees as 'only human'.
'Sometimes you make a call and the hand goes up in the air and there is no going back. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake, but it's about getting the critical decisions right. We are only humans at the end of the day. As referees we also have to remember that we are there to facilitate the game.'
Conway carries around hot battery packs for video coverage during games, which he feels is just about justifiable.
'You can have three different batteries for three different TV stations. It gets very hot. It helps everyone understand why you give a decision. It stops any ambiguity and stops the commentators having a go most of the time I guess.'
Conway said the key to refereeing is not to be too authoritative. 'You have to earn the respect of the players and to be transparent with them about decisions you make. It's the look, the sound of your voice and how you blow the whistle. These are the key triggers. If I'm at a game I can nearly tell by the tone of the whistle what decisions are being made, whether it's a penalty, scrum or free kick or if the referee is going to give a card. Rugby, unlike soccer, its not black and white. There is a certain grey area we talk about. We referee to an interpretation of the laws.'
Conway described the atmosphere of being in big stadiums as part of the refereeing set up as 'the best buzz'.
He returns to New Ross RFC as much he can throughout the year to help out refereeing the youths games or mini's as this is the driving force of the club and the grass roots.
'It's still my home. I practically grew up in the rugby club. Without New Ross RFC I wouldn't be where I am today in sport.'
Conway was excited about what games await him. Glasgow vs Scarlets on Saturday, September 5 on Sky Sports at 17.15 is his first game up in the Guinness Pro 12.
'My job is my hobby. I am very privileged to be where I am and work hard every day to maintain and keep developing all the attributes to hopefully stay here and achieve my goals going forward.'
He hasn't come up for much stick yet from supporters or players, but if he does, Conway plans to keep a trademark cool head. 'Ice on the brain'.
'Rugby is a sport. Life is the bigger picture.'