Barnes applies law as he exchanges scene of crime for world of grime

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In the Varsity match 12 months ago, the Cambridge prop Rudi Bosch took out an Oxford jumper in mid-air at a line-out. It was not only illegal but dangerous, and the South African Bosch - he is now a doctor on a cruise ship - became the first player in the 124-year history of the Twickenham showpiece to be sent to the sin-bin.

The man who had the courage to break with protocol and create history by ensuring that justice was seen to be done was Wayne Barnes. By waving the yellow card he created a second footnote in history. His first was that the Varsity match had never before been controlled by a referee who had not gained international recognition. This, though, is about to change.

The spectacular rise of Barnes continues this season with his appointment to take charge of his first Six Nations match, Italy versus France in Rome. At 27, he is the youngest referee on the international panel and a trailblazer in a new class of whistleblower.

Whatever the result at the Stadio Flaminio, he will almost certainly be cursed in Italian and French, if not by the players then by the crowd - or possibly both. Why do referees, who need the coat of an aardvark or the adidas equivalent of a bulletproof vest, X-ray vision, the judgement of an air traffic controller, the touch of a brain surgeon and the wisdom of hindsight, apply themselves to this thankless task?

In this case the choice is all the more remarkable, for he was doing rather well in his previous occupation. You don't find too many barristers walking out of chambers to become a man the crowd love to hate.

Barnes, who studied law at the University of East Anglia, became a barrister in London specialising in criminal law. He was called to the Bar in 2002 and, a few days after joining Temple Gardens chambers, refereed his first Premiership match, Bath v Rotherham.

"I'll never forget it," he says. "There was a big fight but then anger turned to laughter when a streaker appeared. The next thing I had to stop the game when an ambulance raced down the middle of the pitch. Somebody in the crowd had passed out." He also had to halt the Northampton-Bath match this season over accusations of racial abuse between players, although there was no case to answer.

At 21, he was the youngest on the RFU national panel, and in April last year he became a full-time blower of the Acme Thunderer whistle when he joined the RFU's elite referees unit. "It was a wonderful opportunity to establish myself and keep on improving. The thing is you can't ref forever and I can always return to the Bar at some stage."

As a student ref he kept himself in beer money by charging 30p a mile; as one of the elite he is on about £50,000 a year, has an RFU Ford Focus and a five-year contract. "It beats watching from the stands. You have the best view in the house and you make a good living."

It all started - yesterday he was at Leinster v Agen - at Whitecross School, where he was head boy, in the Forest of Dean. Playing in the second row, a knee injury led him to refereeing and at 15 he did his first match, Bream 3rds v Berry Hill Wappers. Bream, his home village, won. "Thirty players knew the laws better than I did and they were more helpful than abusive. It's been the story over the years. You meet fantastic people who are always willing to help. What I love is the challenge. If you can add to the spectacle without being seen you can pat yourself on the back. You're never going to have a perfect game but you try to keep mistakes to a minimum."

Once a week he meets with his "coach" Brian Campsall, the former ref, to review videos. "We ana-lyse everything to see how we can improve for the following week." Barnes, who lives in walking distance of Twickenham, uses the RFU gym three times a week. "Compared to the hours a barrister puts in, it's not that bad." Perhaps the two jobs have something in common. "There was a huge amount of pressure to perform in criminal cases because people's liberty was at stake." And in professional rugby? "Our decisions can and have cost people their jobs."

So Barnes would like to see more use of the television match official - the video ref. As it is, he is rubbing shoulders with the likes of Chris White and Tony Spreadbury, and he sounds as if he has swapped the Forest of Dean for the Garden of Eden.