The state of refereeing in modern rugby

Who wants to be a referee?

Ok, so let’s start with a simple question — why would anyone want to be a professional referee?

On the whole it is a pretty thankless job. In rugby, at least, referees can command respect from the players, compare that to football and the above question becomes even more relevant.

WHY would you want to do this job?

In football in particular it opens you up to a world of abuse and ridicule. Backchat, questioning of decisions and even outright arguing with the ref is commonplace.

In rugby, albeit in a lesser capacity, referees are open to wide criticism and questioning.

Referees still have an integral role to play in the game. They have the ability to change the outcome of a match at a moment’s notice.

Now, at any level there has to be pressure felt. Regardless of who you are, officiating at the biggest stage has to be a daunting prospect. Making a controversial decision on the world stage simply has to weigh on your shoulders.

Refereeing pathway

So again, we ask: why would anyone want that pressure? It’s a question I’m sure referees have to field on a regular basis.

Well there are plenty of benefits.

First of all, they get to stay actively involved in the game they love, whether they’re ex-players or not, you can be sure that they’re rugby fans.

So what does it take to make it at the highest level of rugby officiating?

Involvement starts as you may expect. You attend courses, become certified and begin to ref at the lowest level, more than likely becoming involved in the local game.

As you continue to work away you’ll be judged during games and may have the opportunity to move up through the local game, taking care of higher and higher matches.

Eventually you’ll move out of province and be reviewed under the watch of a different governing body. Keep on this path and you’ll eventually move to looking after senior games moving into Ulster Bank League games.

Keep impressing and passing reviews and the sky really is the limit. Refereeing on the international stage grants you the chance to travel the world while also influencing the game on the biggest stage.

And is the goal really any different once you’ve made it this far? It may be an oft repeated phrase but referees want to finish up their game, wake up the next morning and find no mention of themselves in the rugby media.

No news is good news right?

Referees in the media

Referees are there with the goal of doing a professional job and being swiftly forgotten once they blow that final whistle.

This is mostly the case but rugby is a sport that is focusing more and more on the performance of the officials.

The obvious example that springs to mind is the case of Craig Joubert, publicly criticised by the governing body after his error at the 2015 World Cup, Joubert has struggled to shake his reputation as a below par international referee. He eventually retired from officiating test games to take up a mentoring position.

Nigel Owens — Rugby’s golden boy

Often now, officials are held to the standards of refereeing golden-boy, Nigel Owens. More than any other ref, Owens is very much so in the spotlight. It is a role, you feel, that he relishes.

Quick with a quip (“If you want to dive like that again, come back here in two weeks and play”, is a personal favourite) and harsh of tongue Owens is often applauded for his excellent officiating.

But he also plays a larger role. He spends a great amount of time talking openly about the various struggles in his life. Namely, dealing with depression and being an openly gay man in a modern sports world that often struggles to deal with acceptance of such issues.

This public notoriety and high level of refereeing has helped to establish Owens as one of the strongest in the game. In fact, it is not unusual to hear derision on social media if a different official is appointed to an upcoming “big game” — Leinster v Munster is one recent occurrence that springs to mind.

A gulf in class

The reality is, he simply can’t ref every game. If there is a gulf in class then this really is an issue for world rugby. Owens and Stuart Barnes aside, there really isn’t a high profile referee that screams confidence when taking charge at the top level.

Rugby, you feel, is a game too often marred by poor refereeing. We’re merely a decision away from a great game becoming a poor one. A mistimed or judgement call leads to a red card and the game is effectively over.

We can all agree that dangerous play should be punished, player welfare has to be top of the agenda but what exactly is dangerous play these days?

It seems to be that one man’s dangerous play is another man’s rugby!

Consistency in rugby officiating

The issue here is the consistency of calls. Watch a full weekend of PRO14 or Premiership Rugby and you’ll see an incoherent mix of officiating. Things let slide in one game lead to yellows and reds in others.

We can appreciate that it’s a difficult job, perhaps the most difficult in the game, but the result of decisions simply has to be consistent. The margin of error in the professional game is miniscule, and that stands for both players and referees alike.

The last few days has thrown up a whole new issue with regards to player welfare and officiating. A recent RFU report has linked the newly imposed rule changes with the increase in injuries in the Premiership this season.

The report found that the average number of tackles and involvements are up in the game, 150–167 and 850–925 respectively.

Basically there are more collisions happening and thus there are more injuries occurring. This opens up a whole new can of worms for world rugby officials.

Although the report and findings are indeed fresh, it is a worrying trend nonetheless.

In the modern game the challenges facing the referee are endless, as the game changes they must also adapt and learn, we can imagine that days are now dedicated to fitness sessions and detailed video reviews of their weekend performance.

As preparations turn to European rugby and with the Autumn Internationals and the 6 Nations on the horizon, the biggest challenge of all will be providing consistent officiating.

Originally published at