As Wayne Barnes trundled his way around the field while presiding over the Heineken Cup semi-final between Clermont and Leinster the crowd began to vent its frustration at him. Reflecting afterwards about the lot of referees, it would be fair to say that several times this season Mr Barnes and his colleagues have left rugby followers baffled, stumped and bewildered.
The best referees are the ones you do not notice. Rugby union is a complicated game in its own right. This wonderful intricacy is augmented by the combination of players and coaches attempting in every game to push the envelope of the rules and laws of the game to their limits in order to gain a winning advantage. It takes three groups to make a good game of rugby union. Firstly, the players who carry out the instructions of their coaches; the coaches and their batteries of backroom staff who come up with a “Game plan”; then the person that generally cops it for the game failing to live up to expectations. Well that will be the third member of the triumvirate; the referee. Their fate is all too often out of their hands.
For the referee the task has now reached monumental, perhaps unsustainable levels. Scrutiny has become almost forensic. Accountability comes hand in hand with any profession but the referee is all too often utilised as the means of dissipating the accountability of others. Errors by the referee are put forwards as the sole reason for a bad result, a poor performance and so on. Coaches, Directors of rugby, players, commentators and pundits go over the referees’ performance with the impunity of vultures dismembering a carcass with the benefits of hindsight and technology to criticise and vilify. Very little acknowledgement of the referee’s place as a human being, prone therefore to the same failings as any other, are ever acknowledged. As the attacks on referees grow the uniqueness of rugby’s position of being above other sports in their treatment of the referee is in grave danger of being lost.
Graham Henry advocated at one point the need for more than one referee. Fitness was the area that Henry was most concerned with, and perhaps he has a point. Several sports use more than one official because of the speed of the game; American football, Hockey and Ice hockey to name a few. Fitness levels do need to be enhanced. The ability to keep up with play more proficiently would allow for a more and proactive approach, as they would be closer to the action. The referee has to react quickly and being on the spot through a combination of anticipation and stamina can only add to the quality of control.
On the other hand both teams must want to play an expansive and entertaining game. If that happens then the referee can buy into it and enter what is called euphemistically “The spirit of the game”. But, that is all too often where the issues begin. How many teams are truly committed to the concept of creating entertaining rugby or is the need to win a far more vital consideration.
This is unique to rugby; it should not be allowed to degenerate into a means of merely restarting the game. When was the last time a hooker was penalised for “Foot up”? This has been allowed to deteriorate from a contest of strength, cunning, courage, and balance into a duel between two herds of charging buffalo. The need to “Chase the space” has meant more reset and collapsed scrums than ever. Yet the answer is still there enshrined in the laws of the game. Make the scrum-half feed the ball into the scrum correctly (in other words straight) so that the hooker has to strike to win the ball. In an instant the contest is revived and so will the need for straight and firm scrums.
Make it simple for all of us but especially the referee. By stopping players flopping all over the ball their sole purpose to slow the ball down, get their defence organised and prevent what everyone else wants, tries. Perhaps, the best way to clear up the breakdown would be returning to old-fashioned rucking. Clearing out over the ball, would produce quick ball, faster and more entertaining rugby.
Referees jobs made easier; players understand their roles better; a superior game for all concerned. Perhaps then we can then stop blaming the ref.