Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Love to Loathe: Referee – the Hardest Job in Rugby

The ref whistles up a score - pic © Al Ross
The ref whistles up a score - pic © Al Ross

As I player I always respected the referee during the match; occasionally through gritted teeth as their knowledge of the laws was never as good as mine. As a fan I have both backed referees and yet wondered what my team has ever done to offend this clown. The point I am ambling towards is: the referee’s word is final; and it is likely to upset at least one side before, during and after the match.

Questioning a decision made by an official, if dealt with correctly by both parties, should remain the captain’s prerogative. The vast majority of the time this is for clarity (hence why if its available I’ll buy a RefLink) and is dealt with calmly, however, we seem to be on the slippery slope to haranguing and abusing officials if the decision is not one we like.

Prime example is the explosion of ire directed at Roman Poite for his decisions during the recent All Blacks versus South Africa match, in which Bismarck Du Plessis was shown a red card. This seemed to set the internet and the pundits to maximum rage overload, like the 2000AD character Mean Machine. On a vast number of social media portals and sports shows there was an outpouring of disgust at such shocking and controversial decisions that ruined the spectacle. That, because of the stakes in that game, the referee should have made sure of his decisions to ensure the game finished with each team with 15 players.

Personally I think the first yellow was a mistake; however the second yellow was in fact a straight red.  There’s an even simpler conclusion: both cards were the result of poor technique and basic skills. A slightly lower tackle or an actual hand off could have removed the doubts the referee may have had which would have possibly led to a wave of play on.

In order to combat the abuse and criticism of referees the SRU has updated its discipline rules after it was made clear at the AGM in June that “abuse is unacceptable and […] will not be tolerated.” The new discipline rules were provided to all clubs before the start of this season and are available here. Incidents on the first day of the season have led to two players receiving bans of up to 10 weeks, one of whom was Selkirk’s captain.

Teams, coaches and players at most levels are a sneaky bunch.

Most players know the laws (or at least should) and know how far to bend them. Some laws have been ignored or not enforced correctly for so long that certain skills and techniques being coached are illegal but a blind eye is turned by the officials. Crooked scrum feeds and players in front of the kicker at restarts are two of my pet peeves currently; there are many others and I am sure you have your own list.

Now the eradication of these practises as well as that dreaded word interpretation of the laws is something the IRB and the likes of Joël Jutge must and are addressing to some degree. Fellow blogger Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93) has covered this here far better than I could.  The SRU have also decided that their own refereeing program requires some bolstering and as such have appointed former elite referee (and police officer) Tappe Henning to the newly formed post of Referee Commissioner.  Henning will not only work with the SRU’s referees with an aim to get them to elite standard but also review the lower levels as well.

I think a referee’s job is hard enough without being second guessed by players, coaches, pundits and armchair fans. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt over 80 minutes it is the referee (I feel those words will come back to haunt me) especially if we want fast, flowing, running rugby.

Now I have always been under the impression that the referee’s main job is to make sure a game is completed safely and within the confines of the laws laid out by the IRB. Am I misguided or simply naive?  Surely the responsibility of the spectacle lays firmly at the feet of the teams, coaches and players?

And I do respect you sir. Honest.

4 Responses

  1. I was pleased to note the porfessional and respectful way the Glasgow players handled themselves tonight againts Scarlets in the face of a dreadful performnace by all the officials. It would seem that joining rucks from the front, never mind the side, is acceptable if you are Welsh and that collapsing mauls on your own try line get you the put in at the next scrum. I must have missed those rule changes. None of the lads bit back or complained, they just got on with it, even Lamont when he was yellow carded for trying to get the ball from a player on the ground refusing to release (again, i must have missed that rule change). As a referee myself, i know how tough the job is and its good to see a team of lads show the appropriate respect, even in the face of incompetence. I have had some stinkers myself but as i have said to players, we all make mistakes, its how we handle it that shows if we are men or not. I would hope that the Italian ref tonight would be man enough to take on board constructive post match criticism and look to improve the next time out.

  2. I don’t think the ref was particularly pro-Welsh. He has that “Rabbit caught in the headlights” look about him, where it appears that he rushes decisions then blocks out any doubt in his mind by looking angry.

    After watching Nigel Owens on Saturday afternoon, then catching the Glasgow game it highlights what impact the quality of officiating can have on a game.

    There were times in the NZ game where Owens had no idea what had just happened, but he just blew the whistle, bought himself some time, considered his options and then made a decision that he clearly communicated to both teams. The incident with the “unregistered” player on the pitch being an example.

  3. Communication is key to a good game whether that be between the players, the officials or the referee and the captains. I think what some of the games this weekend showed is the gulf between the top elite referees and some of the ‘top’ leagues’ referees.

    From the Scarlets Glasgow game where there seemed to be a bit of a language barrier causing delay in decisions through to the Cardiff Edinburgh game where there seemed a little inconsistent consistency (can understand a yellow being showed after a warning of too many penalties but don’t understand half time resetting the count and warning) via a virtual masterclass by Nigel Owens.

    Any current, aspiring or future referee would not be steered wrong by watching that match as blueprint of how to control a game. Clear, concise instructions with explanations and no hesitation in decision making either with or without help from his colleagues. I especially liked his comment to JdV when he made some reference to the previous game along the lines of “I’m the ref this week not last week”.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion