Why the treatment of referees must improve

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.

The Scrum

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.

The Breakdown

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.

by Gareth Hughes

12 thoughts on “Why the treatment of referees must improve

  1. Interesting & thought provoking points made. Particularly the aspect of matches being won and lost on one key moment, such as a decision by a referee. That happens to be true, as it does when a knock on, forward pass, ‘turn over’ or missed or successful kick at goal occurs. We have often commented that player compliance is the single most important factor which allows a match to flow.
    Referees enter a match with the intent of allowing players to play, provided it’s based on a fair contest. The moment players go outside of that decisons have to be made and peanlties are awarded.
    Whilst accepting of course that the complexities of the sport make for varied interpretations, players are entitled to know what a referee thinks about a break down, and ones referees split second ‘not releasing the ball call’ might be another’s ‘hands in the ruck’.. So multiple referees I feel wouldn’t work on the consitency argument.
    Like players, referees strive to produce best performance, when they don’t analysis of why takes place along with action points to improve. TheRefZone exists specifically to help support & develop those officials so they can be, in the right place, at the right time to make the right decision….

    1. Thank you for such a well considered response. The role of the Assistant referees was also one that I considered adding to the article in the interests of brevity I left it out. Here we have something to learn from soccer about the utilisation of another 2 pairs of eyes. Also in the SH I have noticed, particularly in NZ a conscious effort to interact more as a group. Maybe paying more attention to obstruction and body angles over the ball not being constructive.

  2. I think over analysis of the game back backroom staff, coaches ect is killing some of the entertainment on offer. I’m not sure how the sport can regress back the level of professionalism that seem to be damaging rugbys free flowing nature, but something should be done.

    1. Thank you for your response.

      Yes the amount of analysis appears to have reached a forensic level. The cost of which might well be seen in the dimunition of “Flair”. The best game for a coach could be a draw, low scoring victory. As all parts of the team worked well, defence and attack, and whatever then they might be able to blame the ref for missing something

  3. The scrum could be sorted by enforcing the law that states you cannot push until the ball is in. The ‘hit’s in professional rugby has become a hurculean undertaking, allied that to the skin tight shirts and you can understand why the scrums are a mess. Let’s remove the hit (which is illegal in my eyes anyway) and allow no pushing till the ball is in. For those who feel this would remove a large part of the competition between the packs, think again. We’d return to the old school style of scrumaging, complete with props using all sorts of old tricks and skills now confined to the 4th teams and vets matches. Less collapsed scrums, less threat to neck injury, sorted.

    1. I could not agree more. The hit, in my opinion, is one of the main causes of scrums collapsing upon impact and ,as a result, many players have suffered horrific injuries because of it (Matt Hampson is a perfect example of this). Partner this with the skin-tight jerseys which give little to bind onto and you’re in a situation where scrums will inevitably collapse more often than pass without issue.

      The one issue that was also brought up above is the issue of feeding the ball. As a scrum-half I have to hold my hands up and say that I do feed on occasions (often when my scrum is going backwards!) but I usually get pinged for it and that often results in a groan from my front row.

      However, I see 9s feeding to their hooker more often than feeding straight in today’s professional game, and I cannot think of a scrum-half who is the exception to this rule. Unless one pack is completely dominating, feeding takes all the competition out of the scrum as the front five just need to dig in while the flankers and No8 protect the SH. This is just one small aspect that would require little work to correct.

      1. Never mind feeding to the hooker, you often see them feeding it to the second row! I wish that referees would crack down on this in the same way they penalise hookers for not-straight throws in the lineout.

        Ditch the hit and make the scrum-halves put the ball in to the middle of the scrum, and we’re well on the way to sorting it out.

      2. Thank you for your coment Nick. I have yet to see a justification from any sources for the repeatedly squint feeds it is making a mockery of what should be a part of the game that should be celebrated.

    2. Totally agree with you. The shirts are an issue and the rules insist on a bind; what do you bind onto?

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