There is no game without a referee

featured, Referee, Rugby, rugy union, World Rugby

The Roar Rugby Project aims to document the challenges and opportunities facing rugby at all levels across the nation in the following articles. We are looking to Roarers’ experience as players, officials and supporters to find new solutions for the problems that have dogged the game over the last twenty-five years.

1. Introductory launch – an overview of the challenges facing the game
2. Financing rugby- revenue challenges all community and professional rugby
3. Debt, Windfalls, Lessons Learned, and Other Myths – Refinancing RA losses
4. Governance – The need for constitutional change
5. Supporting community rugby
6. Tiers or Tears – competition structures for Professional Rugby
7. Losing money made easy – Professional Rugby must be profitable
8. A Story of Neglect – There is no game without a Referee
9. Coaching and Development – Another story of neglect?

Referees were certainly not on my radar when I started this project. The Australia vs Wales Test then threw up a few refereeing controversies, and the referee, his assistants and the TMO bore the brunt of the criticism.

It must have cost the unions over $10 million to put those teams on the field in 2021. Notwithstanding the inevitable, and significant, influence on the quality and outcome of the game, I would not be surprised if World Rugby spent as little as possible on the officiating team.

My own experience is limited to struggling with the offside law running the line in junior soccer. I may have refereed a pickup game, or maybe not, but I have certainly scrubbed it from my memory. Friends who have done a little bit, assure me that the experience is humbling.

I would think referees have similar motivations to many players and volunteers. They might want to be fit, they may just want to give back to the game, it is a community responsibility, they aspire to be the best referee they can. As noted above, referees have a massive influence on the enjoyment of every game, for players and spectators.

After more than 50 years in the game I am wondering what it is like being a referee, and what is their experience of rugby? I am embarrassed to admit I have never given it a thought.

This article is written from the outside, with little knowledge of what really happens behind the scenes to manage refereeing internationally, and domestically, including professional rugby, Premier competitions, and club and regional rugby at all levels.

World Rugby
A persistent complaint on The Roar, and in the sporting media, is the lack of consistency in the application of the laws in different games, different competitions, and different hemispheres.

What is the role of World Rugby, and what sort of investment was made in the consistent application of the laws in all the Autumn internationals?

Over the last eight weeks I have become far more interested in the global administration of the game. Previously I had assumed, just as I always have had with Rugby Australia, officials were mostly volunteers giving back to the game.

The lack of transparency around massive amounts of money is a concern, but at least there will be sufficient funds to support positive change in the process of developing laws, and enforcing them .

Laws of the game
World War I was fought in the four years between 1914 and 1918. World War II was fought in Europe for six years between 1939 and 1945, and for four years between 1941 and 1945 in the Pacific.

How long does it take World Rugby to consider, devise, trial, and implement new laws? Sometimes it feels like forever, from the time a problem becomes apparent to everyone, until a new law is finally implemented after the end of the next RWC. Even then it might still only be a “trial”.

I do not think anyone could possibly suggest that World Rugby is making it a priority. At times they still appear to put as much distance between themselves and controversy as possible. There is plenty of money to fund my modest suggestions and probably many others that will be posted by readers.

Sevens has been around for over a hundred years, is part of the International Rugby landscape, and benefits from simplified laws. I question the value to the game of 10s, and now 12s, and suspect they are getting traction in response to glaring problems with existing laws and their application.

Angus Bell of Australia reacts as he is shown a yellow card by Referee, Jaco Peyper during the Autumn Nations Series match between England and Australia at Twickenham Stadium on November 13, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

International referees
My understanding is that international referees are under supervision of a World Rugby officer, and that their performance will be reviewed and affect future appointments. The interpretations of those performances directly impact on the individual referee’s career and income.

I have no knowledge of what happens before games. For example, do individual test match referees receive a briefing, or do all referees officiating on the same weekend receive a group briefing?

There are about 25 referees appointed for the Six Nations series in February and March and I wonder how much time they will spend together as a group, intensively reviewing laws and their application during games?

If I was Chairman of World Rugby, I would start here if I wanted to improve the global standard of refereeing, and the attractiveness of rugby refereeing as a career, or as a community activity.

Home-ground video directors and TMOs play a massive part in further complicating the officiating of every game. Correct or incorrect, their involvement and interference must be reduced.


A suggested schedule
I have no idea how the international system operates, and they may well be investing considerable resources into it. Maybe they are already doing some of the same things I suggest, in which case we both clearly have no idea.

Although the development of international referees is far removed from domestic rugby, it is a calendar we all understand. I would see the same principles of review and feedback as being important for the development of most referees.

There are four “test windows” during the year, with 2 of them, the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, being protracted. For the Six Nations it looks like Antipodean referees are involved in the 1st half of the series, presumably before they fly home for Super Rugby.

Presumably, there might be, say, 100 officials around the globe, including top echelon referees and other officials intrinsic to communicating and filtering standards and practices throughout the globe.

January would seem like a good month to bring all these people together for a week, or longer, to review major trends and contentious issues arising from the previous year. Footage of contentious decisions, grey areas, and emerging problems should be reviewed and analysed in detail, to arrive at a consensus understanding of how the laws will be interpreted.

You could assume the outcomes of these conferences would feed into better processes around reviewing and improving the laws.

The annual meetings would be followed up with each group (maybe 15) appointed for each of the four 3-4 week windows for the June, Rugby Championship, and November ‘Autumn’ internationals. Possibly a shorter 2-3 day meeting prior to the series commencing and also including such other officials as required.

I would expect the agreed interpretations would form the basis of formal performance assessment. There should be a system for feedback and queries on interpretation from other members of the referee team, together with other referees watching the games. I assume that international referees watch a minimum number of other games, even if there is no expectation for them to do so.

Through subsequent continuing appraisal and review, I would hope we, as spectators, would start to see consistent application over time and have a reasonable view of how the rules are to be interpreted. Maybe even coaches and players too.

The apparent expectations of international coaches for immediate redress, apology and changes in interpretation for their next game, are unrealistic and unproductive. The inevitable result is that nothing will change. There is truth in the line of “we will review today’s game, and then move onto next week”. I am sure this applies at all levels.

(Photo by Soccrates/Getty Images)

Referee recruitment
Mostly I have the impression that recruitment in Australia is reactive with resources, opportunities, and information to be found online. Again, my impression is that the system of testing and accrediting referees is adequate and fit for purpose. With increased numbers of recruits, higher standards for preparation post-qualification, and before refereeing a match, could be considered.

I don’t know about everybody else, but I do know I regularly, or even as a matter of practice, sought out the referee to thank him for the game. After a few drafts, and some reflection, I doubt if I was always that graceful. Except for the day when my boss refereed, I certainly can’t recall having a beer and chatting about the game with one.

Apart from that, I wonder how many referees are reluctant to join the informality of post-match functions, freely discussing the game with the players. Maybe we as players and clubs, have not made them as welcome as the opposition team. Is there a secret location where they gather on a Saturday night?

I do expect that the further from the cities you go the less of an issue it is, with players and referees more likely to know each other personally.

When I played it was expected that a referee would speak at the after-match function, although I do not generally recall whether all referees attended, or for how long. Some years later the club commenced practice of inviting all referees who made their 1st grade debut that year, to the annual presentations, where they were presented with a gold whistle. Probably only gold plated, there is a limit.


Referee development
I am not sure how review and appraisal of community referees is done. In some competitions I have heard there is a ‘secret shopper’ in the crowd, or the threat of one, to provide a report. I don’t know how effective that is, but I’m not sure that clubs feel they see results.

It was suggested to me that some of the club and crowd frustrations develop over a long period where nothing changes, and the referees are just remote from the game. Sometimes I feel watching the same referees in local games is Groundhog Day, the games and the way they are refereed, never change.

Maybe Rassie just represents a world view? I am not sure many agreed with how he went about it, but a lot more had sympathy for his complaints.

There is probably significant variation in the quality of the mentoring, coaching, and evaluation of referee performance across different competitions and regional zones. I don’t know how these responsibilities are structured and whether anyone is accountable for continuing failure.

Do senior referees arrive early to watch and mentor less experienced referees, and are they comfortable with those referees learning by reviewing their own performance later in the day? Does your club provide amenities and facilities to promote referees comfortably working as a group throughout match day?

Is the development of elite referees hampered in the same way as elite players? When the pool is small, is there a temptation to fast-track promising young referees? It certainly appears that referees are being asked to officiate games at the elite level before they are ready.


The role of senior players
I personally don’t understand why a detailed knowledge of the laws is not required by coaches of the professional players. The easiest way to do this would be to require currency of a refereeing ticket, and that it be used a certain number of times a year. I cannot believe the professional player would not improve his/her own understanding of the game.

From a promotional perspective, I would have thought administrators would be keen for players to participate in such meaningful promotions. I understand that balance is required for preparation, but until they win enough games to bring in big enough crowds to pay their salaries, they need to do a bit extra.

I can’t think of a more effective way to promote the importance of referees to the game, and the respect they should be afforded.

The same benefits will apply for any club requiring its senior players to referee a certain number of junior games every year.

Age has brought me maturity and wisdom, even if less so than the average person. Refereeing now looks to me to be a good way to stay fit, stay in touch with the game or give something back.

What appears to be absent is transparency, responsibility, and accountability over referee recruitment, coaching, development, and promotion. Should we be surprised?

The aspirational young referee has a massive opportunity to take part in a sporting activity requiring high levels of fitness, detailed knowledge of laws, high-level problem-solving and analytical skills, with the need for rapid decision making under significant time pressure and fatigue.

Add in the camaraderie and community of rugby, and it is surprising there is not more of them.

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