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.