The Changing Landscape of Refereeing in Rugby Union

Such has been the discussion lately about refereeing and their decision making, I thought I’d throw my opinion into the mix.

Let’s be honest, refereeing a game of rugby union in the modern day is no mean feat. The pressure and expectation to make every call the right one is certainly insurmountable. Fortunately we have the TMO and assistants on hand at the highest level, but then not so much at the grass roots level. But obviously having a TMO at grass roots is nigh on impossible.

The game is constantly evolving and subsequently makes the objective nature of officiating incredibly difficult. The subjectiveness of players, coaches and commentators places too heavy a burden on the match officials presiding in line with the laws of the game.

Rugby union is built on a number of principles and none more so as significant as respect. Rugby is notorious for the way players respect the officials – a lesson still to be learned across the sporting world.

But it seems the perception of referees in rugby is changing; albeit on a very small scale, but apparent nonetheless. I’m highlighting a number of instances that acknowledges this changing landscape and questions whether the rhetoric surrounding the principle is in danger of having its otherwise gleaming record tarnished.

In turning our attention back to Rugby World Cup 2015, the quarter final between Scotland and Australia promised to be the game all the preceding hype had anticipated. And it did to some extent. Craig Joubert was the man in the middle. The game itself was incredibly intense – one of Scotland’s finest performances. But it was the final moments of the game that created the legacy of the spectacular occasion. A split second decision that turned Joubert into public enemy number one in Scotland. A decision that Joubert called from what he saw – a decision that gave Australia a penalty that won them the game and a place in the semi-final. But again, the subjective commentary from a number of high profile figures inadvertently disrespected Joubert. And even more so when he blew the final whistle and left the field straight away. He was quoted in the telegraph as saying “in my head was a desire to avoid any possible unseemly confrontation that would mar what had been a wonderful occasion.”  This is rugby for crying out loud. A split second decision made by the referee and consequently analysed in the post mortem in the days that followed. The crowd were undoubtedly hostile – but this isn’t what rugby is about. It was a scene more comparable to football (soccer) than a game of rugby union. I personally had never seen anything like it. Twickenham nearly exploded on that day! And I believe Joubert made the right decision, but it amazed me to see such contempt and disregard from the rugby world. Certainly something that should never be found in rugby.

Additionally, I recently attended a game where there was an incident and the referee explained to the player that it would be dealt with afterwards. The referee, even with the TMO, wasn’t in a position to make a decision due to the nature of the incident. After the game, a number of coaches confronted the referee and his team to denounce his actions and question why it was effectively not dealt with at the time. The referee didn’t see the incident and that is why we have TMO’s, citing commissioners etc. They assist the referees in keeping the play to the laws of the game. There is no place in rugby for disrespect – be it to players, coaches or referees. Coaches of all people should see that, as they are the ones who educate players in the game. It’s sad to see how the outlook on such a principle is changing and how referees are officiating on a knife-edge with the fear of condemnation at the back of their mind.

Similarly, I watched another recent game involving Leicester Tigers. Captain Tom Youngs was told on numerous occasions by referee JP Doyle that he was not refereeing and to tone down on his communication to him. Don’t get me wrong, the captain should be able to speak to the referee about decisions and no one else, but there is a boundary and crossing that boundary should not come into question for a club captain. JP Doyle is one of the UK’s best emerging referees – he constantly talks to players on the field and does generate respect for what he does. But constantly questioning the referee’s decision is simply wrong; it goes against all the spirit of the game exudes.

It’s great to see World Rugby taking a stance on dissent – another aspect of the game that has no such place. But the fact that it has been brought to the fore shows how much of an impact it is having in the game. You constantly hear referees telling players not to argue or back chat about decisions and the number of penalties referees are giving for the offence is steadily rising.

It’s evident that refereeing is becoming increasingly more difficult as the game evolves. A tougher stance and harsher punishments will contribute to the demise of such situations of disrespect. Rugby is a family, and without the backing of all the components, it won’t function as fully and as harmoniously as it should. Referees are an integral part of the rugby family and should therefore be able to carry out their duty in the appropriate environment – remember, they’re people too after all.


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