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Dear Referees

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I love the whole ethos of rugby. I love the fact that this ethos means that the respect afforded to rugby referees is supposed to be unconditional. I hate the fact that I lost my temper and gave a referee an ear bashing last weekend at a sevens tournament. I shouldn’t have done it. I’m certainly not proud of the fact I did it and it goes against all the values and the ethos that I think makes the game of rugby stand head and shoulders above most other team sports. So why did I do it?

The simple answer is that the referee made a wrong decision that cost my team the final of an extremely high standard tournament in the last play of the game. There is no doubt he was wrong unless they’ve recently allowed players to be tackled when they aren’t in possession of the ball and I, somehow, missed the memo. But hang on, referees make mistakes just like players make mistakes and that’s why this idea of unconditional respect is afforded otherwise you’d have the kind of farcical situations you have in association football just with much larger people who are actually allowed to knock the crap out of each other as part of the game.

I understand that premise and agree it is vital to the game, I am certain of that fact. Mistakes happen and they are part of the game. So if I understand that fact and I believe that it should be accepted as such then why did I lose my temper? Maybe the answer isn’t quite so simple after all.

I believe I lost my temper with referees because currently (particularly for rugby sevens but for most rugby outside the top two divisions) there is no genuine channel for following up on a referee’s mistakes after the game.

When I was the Director of Rugby for a regional level development club one of the policies I wanted to implement was that at circa U14 level all the players would attend the entry grade referee course. The club was in favour and, all chuffed with myself, I sought the input from several senior members of a referee society expecting a positive response and hopefully offers of free assistance running the courses at the club. To my surprise they were unbelievably anti the whole idea to the point of being downright rude. After I’d managed to close my jaw, get them to repeat themselves to make sure I wasn’t going either mad or deaf and composed myself to take in a very different response than the one I expected, I listened as they told me that it was a terrible idea as then the “kids” would “know too much” and make refereeing their games too difficult. They weren’t joking. I checked. Twice. Apparently asking someone if they are joking when they are deadly earnest is a) rude and b) shows a lack of respect. Particularly if you ask them it twice. Funnily enough after that the idea, much to my chagrin, never got off the ground. A pity really as apparently the game is desperately short of referees and if my club produced just one referee from that age group each year then that might have, you know, helped a bit.

The problem is referees in general and assessors in particular treat most players and coaches like they are benignly tolerated village idiots who lack the mental capacity to understand the great game of rugby like the members of their society.

They might possibly be right but even village idiots can download the free IRB laws app onto their smartphones complete with video clips showing how the IRB is giving guidance on law interpretation and then notice when that isn’t quite what’s happening during a match. It almost seems like they try and make refereeing a dark art – a classic case of the cliché “knowledge is power”.
To me, getting as many people involved in the game as educated in the game and its laws and ethos will mean that you’ll get fewer mistakes and more people singing off the same song sheet.

My worry is that because there is no perceived route for grievances to be raised and a referee’s shortcomings to be addressed, more players, fans and coaches will resort to giving the referee a mouthful and that can only be bad for the game of rugby. The closed ranks, “the referee is always right” attitude where referee societies talk down to the players et al just doesn’t work any more. If you want to maintain the game’s values in a rapidly evolving, media centric knowledgeable rugby society where perceptions of the referee are damaged by a perceived lack of engagement on disputes raised after games then there needs to be a clearly defined method for communication that is accessible to all.

We need to accept that referees, like players and coaches, make mistakes and that they will be looked at after a game if necessary and that raising them with the referee will lead to a grown up discussion rather than a school teacher to pupil lecture (strangely enough a large number of referees are school teachers……..).

An open transparent process is needed so that when referees make mistakes, and they will, they are helped to identify why and how to improve their own performance. With the knowledge that this can happen I think all concerned will be more forgiving of mistakes on the field and continue to play and watch the game in the spirit it is intended.

So back to my story, what would have been the outcome I’d have wanted at that sevens tournament? (Apart from the result being altered of course…..) Actually it would have been fine if the referee has simply admitted he could have been wrong. I don’t expect referees to be infallible but I do expect them to be honest with themselves about their performance as without that they undermine the respect they are quite rightly afforded to the detriment of the game.

As for me, I suspect I owe that referee an apology for my behaviour and I hope he’ll accept the time-honoured method of doing that by letting me buy him a beer the next time I see him.

About Gobbiero

I have worked in rugby for the last ten years predominantly in rugby sevens. I have previously been a director of rugby at a regional development club and coached and managed some of the best invitational sides in the world. I am currently the team manager and coach for a tier 3 developing nation as well as continuing to work on the invitational rugby sevens circuit. View all posts by Gobbiero

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