Refereeing is a team sport

The Tight Head

Seriously, how hard is it to arrange that a panel of international quality referees all interpret the rules of the game along the same, or at least similar, lines?

Before I continue, I realise that there is a massive risk to an all-out attack against referees. Obviously what they do is very difficult and also doesn’t appear to be a very attractive career option, based on how few top level referees exist these days. The last thing the game needs is for “ref-bashing” to become common place, which could easily result in more referees deciding that it isn’t worth their while to take the flak on a weekly basis from armchair critics who couldn’t do any better if they tried.

I certainly couldn’t do any better. It’s one thing to sit on a couch, with an HD TV feed, and to spot infringements. It’s quite another to do it live, in the run, trying to dodge 30 men mostly far bigger than you with a stadium of passionate supporters heckling your every move.

Refs 2I respect what referees do, and my gripe doesn’t lie with them specifically – although a few of them will be responsible for the heart attack which I am bound to have before I’m 30. My issue lies with the management of referees and the organisation responsible for their training, selection, promotion and evaluation.

I have what I believe could become part of the solution to the problem which we are currently facing. Refereeing at the highest level is close to a full time job these days. Accordingly, they should be expected to devote a certain amount of their time outside of Test matches to their jobs as referees. They get paid well enough to expect this of them in any event. My suggestion is that once a month the entire panel of international referees ought to be put together around a table and made to discuss each other’s refereeing performances.

In the same way as a team reviews its game tape during the week after a game and each player and coach points out the mistakes which were made and how to rectify such a situation the next time it arises, so should the international panel of referees do the same, but with a highlights reel of potential errors, inconsistencies or talking points. The idea is not for it to be a name and shame exercise, but rather a forum for referees to discuss their colleagues’ interpretation of certain rules and to try and create a situation where all referees from all parts of the world agree on how to ref the grey areas within the rules.

Refs 3How could it not be beneficial to the game to have Alain Rolland, Jaco Peyper and Steve Walsh sitting together discussing how they each interpret the scrum laws and when and where they award penalties, free kicks or simply resets? Hopefully, through a proper debate, the three of them can agree on when to award what and we can see that consistency coming through in matches.

Some aspects will be larger than others. Some will be as small as “how long does a player have before he’s blown for holding on, when tackled?” Small things like that make matches between Northern and Southern hemisphere teams an absolute lottery these days. Watching the scrums and breakdowns between the Boks and Wales last weekend was a farce – you had no idea which way the whistle was going to go and even by the end of the match consistency was still the main thing lacking in Roland’s interpretation of the rules.

In short, the international panel of referees ought not to be treated like individuals, but rather as a team – and like a team, they ought to meet regularly to discuss the team’s performance, where the team performed well, where the team could improve, which team members need to pull their socks up and who their best performer over the period under review was. The team should to hold press conferences and account to the public when they have let them down and should be praised when they have excelled. The team’s best performing members should be rewarded and their worst performing members should be dropped to a lower level of competition.

Refs 4And how should it be decided which decisions need to be discussed by the team? Why not have coaches afforded the opportunity to request certain decision to be looked at – that way they get the specific clarification they want (which helps that team improve) and it doesn’t result in an avalanche of decisions being thrown at the referee-team after each Test.

I try to read as much as I can about rugby and if this is already happening in some form or another then it needs to be made much more public and much more formalised. The outcomes of referee gatherings should be made public.

Obviously we will need to give the system some more structure and I don’t have all the answers right away, but to me it sounds like a decent option to explore.

International referees are professionals, who get paid a professional wage and who ought to be held accountable for their errors. Anything that can be done to reduce the number of errors and create certainty as to the interpretation of rules should be welcomed by every member of the rugby fraternity – and most importantly welcomed the referees.

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