Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Where Did All the Referees Go?

Come the Autumn, Ross Ford re-emerged as a force.

With the Autumn Internationals in full swing, most discussions surrounding referees have centred around either contentious decisions, or Romain Poite’s joy at officiating his final test match. However, away from the sold-out stadia and television cameras, grassroots rugby finds itself in an increasingly difficult position.

The mantra of “no ref means no game” may have adorned referee recruitment posters for years, yet rarely has this threat seemed real. However, the Borders Rugby Referee Society (BRRS) recently stated that they were edging towards “crisis point” as limited numbers puts match official availability in a precarious position on a weekly basis in the spiritual home of Scottish club rugby.

The uncomfortable truth for those involved in the domestic game is that matches may be cancelled if referee shortages cannot be averted.

How has this happened?

Well, like many clubs, Covid-19 has impacted the retention of individuals who have understandably opened up to the idea of quiet Saturdays after years at the coal-face. But, while clubs are replacing these stalwarts with young talent, the refereeing conveyor belt is not quite firing on all cylinders.

Referee recruits come from all ages and backgrounds. From youth players considering an alternative path, to experienced club men and women who want to give back, all do so because of the opportunities that refereeing provides at all levels; something you can read about here next week…

Shameless plug over, it is worth thinking about those that do turn their hand to whistleblowing. Chiefly, it is that group of ex-players that referee societies across the land are struggling to attract since rugby’s return from the pandemic. Whether that is due to extending careers or more attractive options post-playing is hard to tell. Either way, it is a problem requiring an urgent solution.

So, what needs to change?

Well, firstly there needs to be that recognition from those relying on volunteer match officials every week that there is a problem. Whether you show up as a player, coach, committee member or supporter on a Saturday afternoon, the appearance of a referee in the middle come kick-off suggests all is well. Unfortunately, that may not be the case.

Referees are being stretched to cover more games. Reserves that were already depleted are now all but non-existent in some regions. Unless more numbers come through the ranks, the added pressures of refereeing through a long season only add to the difficulties societies have retaining their members.

Crucially, one key step in the right direction needs to come from cooperation. From clubs to referee societies to Scottish Rugby, all are full of individuals who want to shout about refereeing opportunities. However, a worry is that not all bodies have necessarily been singing from the same hymn sheet and best utilising each other’s resources.

That is changing now. For those that undertake the redesigned Introduction into Match Officiating course, referee societies help provide on-field support and guidance for your first games. Some clubs are also pushing the benefits of refereeing to their members more regularly – special mention to Berwick Rugby’s Colin Frame who never misses an opportunity to praise refs on social media!

This is why the BRRS in particular are calling on more clubs to help keep the local game going. Those that join can benefit from joining a welcoming community and receive guidance from coaches who have top-level experience. All that is needed is for individuals to step forward and play their part. Clubs across the Borders can help out by identifying and promoting the attractiveness of refereeing to their members.

The reality is that more can be done. No one involved in the grassroots game wants to see games called off at any level for a reason as avoidable as there not being a referee available. Refereeing needs to be seen again as a viable option for life after playing, otherwise, the local game risks avoiding this unwanted crisis.

Fancy giving refereeing a try? Find out how to get involved here.

5 Responses

  1. Some good valid points.

    Elephant in room though is the fact becoming a Referee isnt attractive to a lot of people because of the abuse often hurled from the touchline from people that think they know better.

    Its abhorrent and goes unchallenged more often than not.

    1. Spot on. I’ve given up football refereeing partly down to that but due to family and also lack of communication from the referee administrators who don’t tell you the truth regarding the progression pathway.

  2. I agree with the article that it is a concern but to put my own experiences this season across I coach the club U18 team in the Glasgow South development conference which by definition is not the pinnacle of rugby and our games are generally less than 15 aside with some players loaned to even teams up etc. In all games we have played so far this season we have had a society appointed ref so if we are getting officials that far down the chain it must be a relatively positive sign. I myself am also a newly qualified referee but of course my opportunities to take any games is limited by my coaching obligations – I guess this is where the concern is – many of the people who might like to help out by becoming a ref are actually already involved in their clubs in some way and if they do start refereeing then perhaps something else will suffer.

    1. Great that you’re always able to get a ref Andy but can assure you that many games only go ahead because of the commitment of a shrinking pool of refs who cover more games, while juggling their own work and families.
      Good article Ruaraidh, would be good to hear more on what the SRU are doing to make reffing more appealing to ex-players and youngsters though, or are they expecting clubs and societies to sort it themselves?
      Agree that clubs have to take more of a role in promoting reffing (some are much better than others) but would argue that this “stick” approach needs more “carrot”: has this message improved reffing numbers over the last 10 years? Refs that only do it because they’re told they have to won’t stick about for long (same as players that warm the bench too much won’t turn up at training mid-December). So what can be done to make sure that new refs of all ages get enough enjoyment to make the tough times and mileage worth it?
      How about some new ideas- discounted tickets for internationals for active refs; more exchanges for development (eg 7s); recognition of achievements of refs at all levels (not just those in the higher leagues)?

  3. A great article and advert. As the mum of the youngest qualified ref in Scotland I feel way more could be done to recruit but ultimately retain youngsters. Advertising shouldn’t just be directed at injured players or those hanging up their playing boots. Gregor loves it and makes the most of every offer and always looking for the next opportunity and thre is surely more kids/youngsters out there looking for a challenge. The suggestion of more recognition for refs is positive but I also think the whole attitude towards referees needs altered, as mentioned its not always positive.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion