• The referee is an easy target

    During this and the last Rugby World Cup we have seen a growing trend of supporters, commentators, fans and team officials giving the referee a hard time for the decisions they have made, and for me, this trend is very worrying.

    One of the major positives that Rugby has over Football (Soccer to some) is the behaviour of our fans. our fans are allowed to have a beer in the ground, our fans are allowed to sit next to a supporter of the opposite team without trying to club each other to death, our fans can enjoy banter with each other while supporting their team to the end. Privileges that have been long removed from our round ball brethren.

    However, when our teams lose, there seems to be a relentless wish to blame the referee, regardless of how our teams performed. Why has our game become like this?

    The Referee is but one person, with a couple of assistants (when played at higher levels), they have the ability to see incidents only once, and at full speed. They have to make their decisions based on that 1 viewing. And yes, sometimes they get it wrong. They are but only human!

    Lets equate a referee error to that of a players shall we? A good team will generally knock the ball on at least 4 times in an average game. This is a minor frustrating error from the team, the referee generally will not make any mistakes on who gets the scrum, occasionally they may miss a knock on, such is life, as school kids we are told 'play to the whistle'.

    When it comes to penalties, this is where the issues arise, A penalty can be just that, or it can give a team a chance at a kick at goal, or possibly give the infringing team a yellow or red card. But the referee, as they do all game, is doing their best to help the teams not to infringe, they will tell offside players to push back, they will tell a player who is ahead of the kicker to drop, they will tell the players when they need to take their hands off it. This is called preventative refereeing, or in modern terms, management.

    There is though some offences where the referee cannot prevent the offence from happening, a player running at the halfback early and tackling him may possibly do this too quickly for the referee to stop the offence, in this case the referee has no option but to award the penalty, or if possible, play advantage.

    The point is, the referee at no time is wanting to penalise one team or another, they are there to simply enforce the laws.

    A TV Referee (i.e. Rugby World Cup, Super Rugby, Aviva Premiership, etc) is really in a no win situation when it comes to refereeing at these levels. Spectators & teams call for consistency in the refereeing performances, but rarely are consistent as a team in not offending. If a referee blows for every offence, they are accused of making the game all about them and not letting it flow, if they don't blow enough, they are accused of letting the game develop into a farce. if they apply the law correctly, they are accused of being inconsistent. It's a very difficult job, I hope you'll agree.

    The referees are told to blow for 'Clear & Obvious' offences. Please note this is clear and obvious to them at full speed during the game with the one look they get, not clear and obvious to everyone else who has seen 10 different angles at 4 different speeds. There is a big difference.

    So nowadays when a team loses a game, all to often the referee is pointed at as the reason why they lost it. It had nothing to do with the teams errors, and all to do with what is often one incident in which the referee had to make that split second call.

    The big problem is that the blaming of the referee seems to now have become automatic for a losing team, especially where the score is very tight. But this behaviour travels through the levels, and it's getting harder and harder for referees at grassroots levels to turn up week in and week out.

    The number of referees leaving the game because the abuse from spectators, coaches & players is at an all time high, and until we turn this trend back to where the game was about what the 30 players on the pitch do, and not what the 1 person on the pitch does, it's only going to get worse. That means your game of rugby may be cancelled next week because your referee has had enough, or worse still, it will be refereed by one of the team, who doesn't really know what they are doing, and someone may get seriously hurt.

    Lets look at the most famous games where referees have been the target of abuse.

    RWC 2007 - New Zealand v France - Wayne Barnes:

    Wayne Barnes receieved everything from Death Threats, to vile postings of what people would do to him if they ever saw him because the pass that lead to France scoring the winning try was forward.

    The fact that NZ had 71% of Possession and 63% of territory was over looked and ignored. The fact that NZ had 8 minutes and 10 seconds in France's 22 to France's 2 minutes 7 seconds in theirs was seemingly irrelevant.
    The fact that the All Blacks had 10 handling errors, conceded 7 penalties and had a player sin binned because of this, was also not relevant to why they lost the game.

    It was far easier to blame Wayne Barnes for a pass that neither he nor his assistant referees saw as forward in their single full speed look.

    Because of this one incident it has now become a national sport in New Zealand to criticise anything that Wayne Barnes does.

    If you doubt my Statistics, see them here: http://www.rwc2007.irb.com/home/fixt...tatistics.html

    RWC 2011 - South Africa v Samoa - Nigel Owens:

    Nigel Owens received a tirade of abuse and accusations from Fulmaono-Sapolu about being biased and racist, and that this was the reason why Samoa had lost the game.

    The game had been amazingly close with Samoa pushing the World Champions to the edge, but they were reduced to 14 men when a report from Assistant Referee Stuart Terheege recommended a Red Card for Paul Williams after he struck the head of an opponent.

    The fact that the recommendation came from the assistant referee didn't stop the tirade, there was no evidence of bias or racism from Nigel Owens, and Fulmaono-Sapolu was given a suspended sentence, with part of the requirements being he takes a recognised referees course.

    RWC 2011 - South Africa v Australia - Bryce Lawrence:

    Once again the tirades of abuse came in, this time from the South Africans, was because of Bryce Lawrence's lack of penalties at the breakdown.

    Once again the game was close, only 2 points separated the teams at full time, and the reason the South African's lost was because of Bryce Lawrence, or so it was said.

    The fact the South Africans had 76% of possession but didn't convert these into points was not a factor in why they lost.

    The two missed penalties, also not a reason.

    The huge 11 minutes and 30 seconds that South Africa spent in the Australian 22 for which they only managed to score 2 penalties and 1 drop goal, also not a reason why they lost.

    Once again, it was all too easy to blame the referee, and whilst it is true to say Bryce didn't have a great game, the South Africans had plenty of opportunity to win it, which they just didn't take.

    RWC 2011 - Wales v France - Alain Rolland:

    Wales lost the game by one point, they were easily the better team, but a Red Card from referee Alain Rolland to Welsh captain Sam Warburton meant they were going to have to dig deep to win the game.

    Once again, it was easy to blame the referee for the reason they lost. Agreed the Red Card was a game changing moment, but the tip tackle was a red card offence.

    However, some Welsh fans decided that the three missed penalties, one missed conversion and two missed drop goals were not the reason they lost.

    The actions of captain Sam Warburton in carrying out a tackle which would have certainly seen him sin-binned at best, and sent off at worst, was not a factor in why Wales lost.

    The fact they had 60% of territory and 59% of possession (despite having 14 men on the field) and could only muster one try, was not a reason they lost.

    Conclusion

    Yes, Referees make big calls in big games, that's their job. Yes, referees will make a few mistakes, they are only human. But very rarely will a referees mistake be the sole factor to why a team lost.

    So, as Rugby supporters, coaches, commentators & referees (yes some of the problems come from our own ranks too) , lets draw a line in the sand and stop this debacle. We are better than this, Rugby deserves better than this, and our referees, the majority of which referee on their own week in and week out in parks all over the world, giving up their time & quite often money to be a part of the game they love, deserve better than this.

    This is my opinion on how our game is going, I hope it gets well soon!
    Comments 56 Comments
    1. bill_d's Avatar
      bill_d -
      Referees have a duty to get it right on the pitch and in this tournament they have failed to do so. The standard has not been high enough. The IRB need to acknowledge this and do something about it. It is THE world showcase RU event - we all deserve better.
    1. Mike Selig's Avatar
      Mike Selig -
      Excellent article. I think this has been the best reffed RWC ever personally. The standard has been excellent and a lot better than the playing standard.
    1. Robert Burns's Avatar
      Robert Burns -
      Quote Originally Posted by bill_d View Post
      Referees have a duty to get it right on the pitch and in this tournament they have failed to do so. The standard has not been high enough. The IRB need to acknowledge this and do something about it. It is THE world showcase RU event - we all deserve better.
      I agree they have a duty to referee the game to their best ability, no referee makes no mistakes? (ergo = All referees make mistakes).

      Important thing is, no referee has lost a team the game. No matter how gutted you are (I'm a Scotland supporter!).
    1. bill_d's Avatar
      bill_d -
      I think we are are still thankfully a long way away from a roundball situation, but the pressure on referees is certainly changing and I think that the referees and the structures that support them have to adapt. In this tournament, while you may be happy with the officials' performance overall (and of course refs like any other humans will make mistakes!), it is self-evident that the refereeing of the tip tackle has been systematically and woefully inadequate - look at Cahui on Cooper in the match today! This has led to a significant devaluation of the final stages which is not good for anyone.And yes, Wales lost the game not Rolland, but no one will ever convince me that playing with 14 men for 60 minutes in an International didn't contribute greatly - with Warburton on the pitch Wales would have scored so many tries the kicking would have been an irrelevance!
    1. Robert Burns's Avatar
      Robert Burns -
      Never said it didn't contribute, but Warburton made the tackle, not Rolland.
    1. bill_d's Avatar
      bill_d -
      Quote Originally Posted by Robert Burns View Post
      Never said it didn't contribute, but Warburton made the tackle, not Rolland.
      Rolland made the decision - he had options, he chose the worst possible one for Wales, the match, the tournament, the game and himself. He should apologise.
    1. Robert Burns's Avatar
      Robert Burns -
      We must agree to disagree.

      Warburton pleaded guilty to the offence too. So he obviously believes his tackle was RC worthy (whether intentional or not), or he would have fought the decision.
    1. bill_d's Avatar
      bill_d -
      By the way Robert, can I congratulate you on a great site. It may not have changed my opinion of the incident which brought me here, but I have certainly learnt a lot and I am looking forward to making a nuisance of myself in the future!
    1. Robert Burns's Avatar
      Robert Burns -
      You are more than welcome to Join Chopper15's club!

      I may not be able to satisfy your enquiries on all aspects of the game, but I have no issue in trying.

      Thanks for the compliment.
    1. chutneyf's Avatar
      chutneyf -
      Well done Robert, great bit of writing
    1. Rushforth's Avatar
      Rushforth -
      Although Robert is correct about a few high-profile situations at RWCs receiving undue targeting, rugby players (as opposed to occasional spectators) tend to understand how difficult it is to referee, and although they may complain during the game, will very rarely complain about the referee as such. A key decision in a close game, perhaps, but a captain is more likely to complain if (as a referee) you haven't protected the safety of their players. I realise that this article is directed at frustrated fans finding this forum (finally?), and that in general players understand the situation better.
    1. Robert Burns's Avatar
      Robert Burns -
      It is not really the people that are in the game. it's those who watch it, the keyboard cowards that start groups up and change people's wiki pages etc, it's all too sad. but this continued abuse of referees through social media and websites will be the rot of our sport.
    1. Skids's Avatar
      Skids -
      Moved to more appropriate thread. Apologies.
    1. stuart3826's Avatar
      stuart3826 -
      Hear Hear. Good bit of writing, sums it up nicely. What a shame you couldn't get this published in the Rugby Paper and some other rags - or could you?
    1. Robert Burns's Avatar
      Robert Burns -
      I'm trying, if you want to help by all means point me in the direction, I've sent it too the Telegraph, maybe they will publish it, maybe not.
    1. richardr's Avatar
      richardr -
      Quote Originally Posted by Robert Burns View Post
      It is not really the people that are in the game. it's those who watch it, the keyboard cowards that start groups up and change people's wiki pages etc, it's all too sad. but this continued abuse of referees through social media and websites will be the rot of our sport.
      I certainly sympathise with this point of view, and it's great to see a well-articulated attempt to fight back against this abuse, but I don't accept that it's all - or even predominantly - the supporters' fault. Yes, the players in these game could have played better, but that doesn't mean that refereeing decisions don't ultimately make a massive difference too. As far as the quarter- and semi-final games are concerned, the refereeing decisions certainly did appear to make a big enough difference on their own to affect the outcome of the match, irrespective of how much of a difference the players could (obviously) have made. Personally I blame the lawmakers (see below).

      I think it's worth pointing out first that there's a big difference between the two games:

      - I thought Bryce Lawrence had a shocker, for the full 80 minutes pretty much, and deserved most of the criticism he received for having a greater influence on the game that any player though simple poor refereeing of the breakdown. Obviously that should not include threats of violence and the like, and that kind of attitude is damaging to the sport not least through reducing the pool of referees who I would imagine feel like they don't need this kind of hassle, but ultimately he should grin and bear it. And it's worth bearing in mind that it's only what everyone used to say 20 years ago in the pub - it's just that now the distinction between private and public speech has been thoroughly blurred by social media...

      - Alain Rolland on the other hand followed the letter of the law, and specifically and clearly followed the guidance given about tip tackles before the tournament. Plenty of people have also said it destroyed the game as a contest, though this is clearly false (in fact it evened it up...), however as a Welsh supporter that wasn't really what I was looking for! On the other hand, as in Bryce Lawrence's case, it's irrelevant for Robert Burns to say that other people - in this case the welsh kickers - could have won the game for Wales, so it's unfair to blame the ref - of course the ref was critical - without the red card it would have been most likely not a close match at all that required good kicking, and personally I don't go to watch rugby to watch people kick well anyway. So why was Alain Rolland so vilified - even more so that Bryce Lawrence indeed?

      If we don't understand that, we won't learn from it, and the game will suffer. Saying people were wrong to criticise is no help - many of the French commentators don't appear to believe they deserved to win from reading their match reports, and not all of them even thought SW deserved to be sent off - so why is there such a disparity between the literal interpretation of the rules and supporter, player and commentator opinion? Personally I think what has brought us to this position is the rule itself. If no non-ref believes this was the right decision, it basically just means that almost nobody who plays or watches rugby agrees with the rule.

      In particular, when both deliberately spear-tackling someone into the ground and releasing someone to fall badly when you realise your tackle has gone wrong are met with the same sanction within the game (albeit not afterwards), then our sense of natural justice is offended. Surely (we say) some credit should be given to the player for appreciating their error and trying to stop it getting worse? Such a good instinctive reaction should surely be rewarded somehow... but this is not within the rules, and that is the problem. Previous similar incidents in the World Cup have been treated like that, and to my mind, the outcome has been correct - yellow card at the time - perhaps a ban afterwards to emphasise how dangerous the action was. IRB criticism of the referees on those occasions for not giving a red (and note those referees were not generally singled for criticism by the onlookers) has led us to this torrent of criticism for AR following the rules to the letter. It devalues a red card to award it for an accident, particularly one that SW tried to stop, and it would restore natural justice to the game, and avoid exactly this demonisation of the ref, if the rule allowed for discretion on the part of the referee with regards to drop-vs-drive and/or inferred motive, and penalised the lesser with yellow plus possible ban rather than red.

      Finally, and I'm sorry this has gone on for so long, it's been argued that legal views of refs-as-magistrates should encourage us to support AR for picking up on the corrections made by the IRB from previous similar offences during the tournament. Quite apart from my disagreeing with the reasonableness of the rule, I think the analogy is wrong. Within a single tournament I think consistency between referees is more important than consistency with the rules. The (now slightly stretched) analogy should really be that if hundreds of people are being charged for the same offence from the same riot (say), and because this takes a long time by the time the last people are being sentenced it is clear that someone important (a senior judge?) thinks that the sentences should have been longer, then should we penalise the last people to go to trial more than the first to correct our earlier mistake? This would offend natural justice too. The correction should instead be made after we have dealt with the current batch, so that they are all treated the same for the same offence...

      Okay, finished now!

      Cheers,

      Richard.
    1. OB..'s Avatar
      OB.. -
      Quote Originally Posted by richardr View Post
      In particular, when both deliberately spear-tackling someone into the ground and releasing someone to fall badly when you realise your tackle has gone wrong are met with the same sanction within the game (albeit not afterwards), then our sense of natural justice is offended.
      Here is where I disagree. Dropping the player is also dangerous, and it is the danger the IRB are trying to eliminate. If they can get players to stop lifting and turning an opponent, the game will be safer, but will still allow solid physical contact.
      Within a single tournament I think consistency between referees is more important than consistency with the rules.
      Rolland red carded Florian Fritz for a spear tackle in a Heineken Cup match. You are arguing that he should now knowingly give the wrong sanction just because previous referees had got it wrong? And been told they got it wrong? Knowing full well he would also have his decision criticised by a disciplinary panel? What would he say to the panel - "Yes, I know I got it wrong but I had to do that because the others did"?
    1. richardr's Avatar
      richardr -
      Quote Originally Posted by Robert Burns View Post
      We must agree to disagree.

      Warburton pleaded guilty to the offence too. So he obviously believes his tackle was RC worthy (whether intentional or not), or he would have fought the decision.
      That's not true. As I say elsewhere, I don't doubt that the decision was technically correct, but pleading guilty and believing that you were justly treated are very different things. Likewise the decision being backed by the panel and the decision being right. The fact is that "The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player’s safety." could be interpreted to let off SW for specifically having regard for the tacklee's safety - otherwise he wouldn't have let go, and he knew that was all he could do in his then position - but this is irrelevant if you believe the panel is not sympathetic to that view. There's no point in flogging a dead horse, and SW knew that the damage had already been done and Wales were out, and that he would be treated more leniently for pleading guilty. Ultimately (and in the real world, not just in rugby) the more unjust and capricious you believe the court to be, the more you are inclined to beg for mercy than to argue your innocence. Irrespective of whether that is the case here, WC pleading guilty could be a tactical decision, not an admission of guilt.
    1. OB..'s Avatar
      OB.. -
      Quote Originally Posted by richardr View Post
      The fact is that "The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player’s safety." could be interpreted to let off SW for specifically having regard for the tacklee's safety - otherwise he wouldn't have let go, and he knew that was all he could do in his then position - but this is irrelevant if you believe the panel is not sympathetic to that view.
      Once he has lifted and turned the player, he has given himself almost no room to redeem himself (though I have seen some players try very hard). Arguing he should be given credit for dropping and not driving does not remove the danger he had already created.
    1. richardr's Avatar
      richardr -
      Quote Originally Posted by OB.. View Post
      Here is where I disagree. Dropping the player is also dangerous, and it is the danger the IRB are trying to eliminate. If they can get players to stop lifting and turning an opponent, the game will be safer, but will still allow solid physical contact.
      I agree, but I don't accept that both being dangerous means both should suffer the same sanction. A yellow card plus a ban for an accident/drop is still a very serious sanction, and a deliberate spear is still much worse.
      Quote Originally Posted by OB.. View Post
      Rolland red carded Florian Fritz for a spear tackle in a Heineken Cup match. You are arguing that he should now knowingly give the wrong sanction just because previous referees had got it wrong? And been told they got it wrong? Knowing full well he would also have his decision criticised by a disciplinary panel? What would he say to the panel - "Yes, I know I got it wrong but I had to do that because the others did"?
      I don't know the incident you're referring to, but if it was a deliberate spear tackle, I hesitate to agree that other refs are letting them off with penalties/yellows. And the Heineken Cup is run over a much longer period of time, so my analogy does break down - I think the World Cup is a bit of a special case in that respect. But nonetheless the point about the ref and the panel is that, yes, they should be able to interpret the law in context and not just enforce it rigidly, and if there is a consistent tendency to ref one way for the first 40 matches, it makes sense to continue that for the last 3.
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