He is a man who whistles while he works. But Wayne Barnes, referee in this weekend’s final of the Rugby World Cup tournament, last year considered hanging up this very whistle after online bullying and threats in which his family was also dragged into.
The flurry of criticism and threats followed comments on X (formerly Twitter) by SA Rugby’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus.
Despite the uproar, the 44-year-old Englishman decided against it and instead just focused on his successful legal career. On Sunday, he will be in charge of what is likely to be a new blowout record of 111 Tests – and probably Barnes’ last -.
Barnes must take control on Saturday in the battle between Erasmus’ defending champions, the Springboks, and New Zealand – and the winners in the titanic final will hold up the Webb Ellis trophy for a historic fourth time.
Erasmus’ tweets about Barnes’ handling of the match between South Africa and France last November (France won 30-26) earned the South African a two-match suspension, just weeks after he was suspended from a year-long suspension returned for other provocative tweets.
“I sacrifice, but my family also makes sacrifices and you still think ‘I have another decent job I can go to’,” Barnes told the podcast. The Good, the Bad and The Rugby said in December last year.
“I am a partner at a law firm and they are keen for me to return full time.
“Of course you question it and there is an ongoing conversation with your family.”
Barnes’ wife, Polly, was threatened with “sexual violence” at that stage and she and the couple’s children received death threats.
“I’ve seen a lot of things over the last few years, but receiving direct messages from so-called rugby supporters who threaten to kill your children and burn your house down with your family inside, just over a few decisions on the field, is a new low for me, my family and a blight on the entire game,” Polly Barnes tweeted.
Ever the cool-headed advocate, even Barnes was shocked by the level and violence of the messages.
“When you have 100 games behind you, you think you can prepare for most things.
“You can’t prepare for that.
“I don’t mind people criticizing my performance and if they want to attack me directly, that’s their choice. But it wasn’t just a border that was crossed. You couldn’t even see the border anymore – that’s how far it went.”
Barnes says he does not know if Erasmus’ tweets were directly responsible for this, but he made it clear that people in senior positions have a duty to keep their opinions out of the public domain.
He says that if people see that those in positions of power, where they are supposed to uphold the values of the game, openly criticize referees, it makes people think that they can do the same.
As a 15-year-old, Barnes acted as a referee for the first time at the school where he would later become head boy.
And his long rugby career has many happy moments too.
He told Rugby World in 2018 how two players – Donnacha Ryan from Racing 92 and Leinster’s Tadhg Furlong – visited him and his two assistants in their dressing room after the match. Both were in high spirits after the Irish province defeated the French side 15-12 in the European Cup final.
“To see a player on the winning team and a player on the losing team in our dressing room speaks volumes for the game,” said Barnes.
“There is a nice relationship between all of us and we work well together – players, coaches and referees.
“We can talk about how the game is changing and moving forward.”
Nevertheless, Barnes at one stage considered giving up his legal career to focus on his work as a referee.
“Due to the financial situation it was inevitable. I took a long time off from my job as a lawyer and because I worked for myself, something had to give,” he told rugby365.com in 2007.
He was finally able to find a balance and also believes that one profession complements the other.
“As a lawyer, you have to be able to pick out the key facts, whether you are defending or prosecuting,” he said.
“It’s about attention to detail and choosing relevant facts – that can be conveyed.
“The analysis of legal text is part of both professions; you must know the laws.”