TRIBUTES have been paid to top rugby referee Wayne Barnes who has announced his retirement following last week’s World Rugby Cup Final.

It comes after the Forester’s wife posted that he had been subjected to ‘death threats’ and ‘vile abuse’ during the tournament, which saw him send off All Blacks captain Sam Cane and hand out three yellow cards in the final before South Africa squeezed home 12-11.

And Barnes confirmed in his announcement that he will continue to work to support referees in a world where “online abuse and threats have become far too regular for all of those involved in the game”.  

One of the all-time greats, Barnes’ stellar test refereeing career spanned 17 years, a record 111 tests and five Rugby World Cups as well as numerous domestic and European finals.

And he bows out having achieved the ultimate accolade in the game, taking charge of the Rugby World Cup 2023 final at Stade de France last weekend.  

The match was a record 27th Rugby World Cup match as referee for Barnes.

It was also his sixth match in the middle at France 2023, equalling the record he set at RWC 2019 when he took charge of New Zealand’s defeat of Wales in the bronze final in Tokyo.

He also refereed 26 Six Nations matches across 17 Championships from 2007-23, and 13 Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship matches, and was involved in 92 tests as an assistant referee with three as TMO.

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont: “Wayne has been a truly fantastic ambassador for rugby, both on and off the pitch.

“What makes him so special is not only his stellar refereeing career, but his wider contribution to the game, making refereeing more accessible to more people.

“He will rightly be remembered as one of the greats – a credit to the game, his nation and his family.  

“On behalf of World Rugby and the global rugby family I would like to thank Wayne for his incredible dedication, commitment, passion and love for the game, which led him to achieve the ultimate accolade in the game, selection on merit to referee the Rugby World Cup 2023 final.

“He was also a deserving recipient of the World Rugby Referee Award in 2019.

“Refereeing is a tough job, perhaps the toughest in sport. It takes a special person with passion, dedication and a support network around them to be so good for so long, to referee 111 tests and to earn the respect of players, coaches and fans alike.

“Wayne’s ability to read and understand the game is second to none.

“He also embodies the passion, professionalism and dedication that was at the heart of a superb team of match officials at Rugby World Cup 2023.”

“He is a credit to refereeing, a role model for those looking to pick up the whistle and has played a huge role in advancing match officiating standards on and off the field. I would like to wish Wayne, Polly and the family the very best for the next chapter.”

Barnes said: “Over the past 20 years, I have been in the middle of some of the greatest rugby matches in history. I have seen some of the world’s best players and worked with some of the finest coaches the game has ever produced.

“Last Saturday (October 28), I was privileged to referee the Rugby World Cup final between two of the most iconic teams in sport; the All Blacks and the Springboks. People often say you will know when it is the right time to retire, and this is clearly the right time for me and for my family.

“My children have missed out on time with their dad for far too long and I am now looking forward to family weekends, sports matches, school assemblies and birthday parties.

“My wife, Polly, has sacrificed more than anyone so that I have been able to achieve some of my personal goals.

“While I have been away most weekends and for decent chunks of the year, she has had to juggle being an amazing mum with two active children, along with holding down a hugely successful career of her own.

“I will continue to advocate for referees and work closely with the International Rugby Match Officials association to ensure match officials across the globe not only have a collective voice but also the appropriate support network for them and their families, particularly as online abuse and threats have become far too regular for all of those involved in the game.

“I am extremely proud that my career has spanned five Rugby World Cups, 26 Six Nations matches, three European Champions Cup finals and 10 Premiership Finals, and I’m grateful for all of those who have helped me along the way, in particular, Chris White, Tony Spreadbury, Brian Campsall, Nigel Yates and Phil Keith-Roach.

“It’s been an incredible journey.”

Fellow refereeing great Nigel Owens said: “Wayne will quite rightly go down in history as one of the all-time great referees.

“His contribution to the game on and off the field is a great credit to him both as a referee and a person. What better way to bow out than in a World Cup final?

“He’s been at the top of his game for a long time now and I always say you become a better referee when you retire! All credit to him for wanting to support the referees of the future.”

But he added: “‘Online abuse is unfortunately something the referees of today have to deal with. It’s the world we live in, but disgraceful and totally unacceptable.

“It’s not going to change unless we change the rules on social media and make people accountable for their words and actions. It’s a toxic place and very, very unfortunate.”

Wife Polly had posted after the final: “What a vile atmosphere at the Stade de France... It’s just a game ****heads. See ya later Rugby World Cup. Won’t miss you, or the death threats.”

Much of the abuse came from aggrieved All Blacks fans, but New Zealand Rugby paid tribute after his retirement, posting: “Congratulations to Wayne Barnes, who has called time on his refereeing career.

“With a record-breaking 111 Test matches in the middle, Wayne’s contribution to the world game has been immense. We wish him and his family all the best for the future,” before adding the hashtag: “#RespectTheRef.”