Andrea Piardi ref
On Saturday 24th February in Dublin, Andrea Piardi will become the first Italian match official in history to referee a Guinness Men’s Six Nations match.

Born in 1992, the Brescian started refereeing when he was 20 years old after a playing career as a back rower in the youth teams of Fiumicello and Brescia - also featuring in the latter’s first team in the Serie A. He was introduced to the game by a friend with whom he would later embark on a long career, fellow Brescian referee Gianluca Gnecchi. The fairytale moment will arrive the Aviva Stadium with Gnecchi by Piardi’s side as an assistant referee for the Ireland v Wales match.

Piardi made his official refereeing debut in 2017 in the Italian Eccellenza championship, before confirming his arrival on the officiating scene two years later in a Pro14 match between Munster and Southern Kings. He debuted at international level in Cologne for Germany v Spain. In the last two years, in reflection of his good work and personal growth, Piardi oversaw first the Italian championship final and then the URC final. He soon tasted his first bit of history-making when he became the first referee to send off a Barbarians player.

Now, another goal that has never been achieved before.

"I honestly haven't thought about it too much yet and maybe I don't feel so much the excitement of being the first Italian to referee a Six Nations match," says Piardi, "but I think it's more the one linked to the achievement of a goal of mine, but also of all the sacrifices and efforts made by my family, my loved ones and the people who have been close to me. Then, for now, I am focused on the next URC game and so I’m concentrating on doing well in that one".

This Saturday at the Arms Park, he will be refereeing the match between Cardiff and Connacht, where he might conceivably encounter some of the players he will meet again at the Aviva Stadium.

"I still don't know if they will be released and they will be there, but it's likely,” Piardi says. “It's a game I want to do well in so I can get back into the habit of refereeing, so to speak. I've been off for a fortnight, I refereed an Italian championship game in Colorno and now I'll be back on the field so I can then be ready for Dublin. I’ll arrive there on Friday 23rd. I have never refereed at the Aviva Stadium, only as assistant and fourth official in the Champions Cup final.

“It will certainly be a great atmosphere in one of the most iconic venues in world rugby. There will be some [emotional] impact - something I already experienced watching the Italy game on Sunday when I heard the anthems. The boy who sang the Irish one was fantastic and the two from Ireland and Wales are some of the most heartfelt.

So there will be another Italian in Dublin to follow the Azzurris’ arrival in round two. Maybe Piardi will be hoping for a different result. “I certainly don't win,” he laughs. “Losing, on the other hand, is possible for a referee and I think it happens when you don't manage to play the match you want to and don't direct it properly.”

A graduate in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Brescia, and a former employee in the technical department of a local company, he has been a professional referee since July last year. And just before a URC match in South Africa between the Lions and Dragons, he received the news from World Rugby referee boss Joel Jutge.

"When I saw his number pop up on my phone, I thought it would be something big and guessed some interesting news might be coming. It was quite a thrill.”

His sporting and working life today is in fact no different from that of the athletes who take the field. “As referees we live a bit backwards, waiting for the weekend - but a weekend where we’ll be working. Once the game is over, we are usually in contact with our coaches and performance reviewer and in the first days of the following week we analyse what happened.

“Then from the middle of the week we start preparing for the next one. We watch videos of the teams to understand their game, the possible fouls, we have meetings, whether at Italian, URC or international level. And on top of that there is all the training work on the pitch and in the gym.”

The release of the recent World Rugby documentary ‘Whistleblowers’ has brought considerable attention to how the referee's task has changed, how it is perceived and how difficult it can sometimes be.

As Piardi explains: ”In itself the matches and the ways of refereeing haven’t changed that much. What has become more complicated is the management of the role, when some possible incidents are often amplified by the media - and today especially by social media - in order to create content, news and debates.

“Sometimes even the relationship with the players has to be managed, but it all depends on the level at which you are refereeing and the experience of those on the field, and then how you set out your expectations for the the match with the players. There are those who are open to exchange opinions, those who want to be more reserved during the match, and sometimes the players try to take advantage to put a little pressure on.

The sort of pressure that Piardi might also expect in the cauldron of an Ireland v Wales match, considering that it will be his debut in the tournament.

“Fortunately, I have good international experience and even more in the URC, where week after week I have met most of these players, so we already know each other. Maybe I will feel more pressure myself during the match to do well.”

There has been plenty of talk in the media and amongst fans about new innovations and technology in the game, which Piardi is happy to discuss - including the introduction of the so-called Bunker.

"From a selfish point of view, as a referee, I consider the Bunker very useful, but I understand that from the other side, that of a spectator watching the game at the stadium or on TV, it is sometimes difficult to understand not having a real explanation of why a foul or a card is changed or interpreted in a certain way. But for us it means more peace of mind and more time, so I think it's positive. Regarding the TMO, after the World Cup, our managers were very clear: there is a protocol to follow and it must be respected. It's not so much a question of taking or not taking responsibility from the referee, but just being bound to this protocol and sticking to it and I think the balance is in the middle.

“If a certain decision is used or given you can think one way because it was used, and if it is not used you can think the other way because it was not. That is why I say balance is needed. As referees we are human beings and we do not always have the chance to be completely certain about what we see at normal speed. I have often got decisions wrong myself, allowing things in the past because I had seen them that way on the field, only to be corrected - and thankfully so - by the TMO.”

Has he observed changes in any of the teams’ approach compared to last year’s Championship that have drawn his attention as a referee? “I don't think there have been any big changes from last year - maybe the extra kicks are one of the things we are focusing on, so particularly offside situations,” answers Piardi. “Because it has been amplified as a situation, we have to be good at being consistent for the full 80 minutes, and it's not always an easy thing to see because sometimes a player is ahead of the kicker by very little.”

And then there is the officials’ focus on the safety and protection of the players on the field: ”That has always been very high in recent years. The Bunker itself has been designed with this in mind, with a lot of care and caution to be exercised for foul play situations to be evaluated, and once again the need for all of us referees to be as consistent as possible in our decisions.”

Ireland v Wales, 14:15, Saturday 24th February, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.