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BLOG 7 COACHES CORNER: Referee’s – The unsung heroes of Rugby Union & sport in general.
As we enter the second week of the RBS 6 Nations, the pressure is on many teams, with France meeting Ireland in what will determine possible Grand Slam contenders… For one team it is the end of the dream and the hope that the winner may slip up in future games so the championship is still to play for. For the countries and supporters the Grand Slam is like the “holy grail” so anything less than a win is a catastrophe. So the pressure on the players and management is quite evident but what about the all important man in the middle? The pressure on the officials in this fixture must be momentous.
Having been out and about in the past few weeks doing some video analysis I have decided to do a piece on referees… especially after witnessing the pressure that referees come under in club and schools matches. The basis of this article is not to tear apart referees nor to be high and mighty and say worship all referees but I would like to see if we can get an understanding about the pressure they may feel.
It would be easy to say that league matches would be the less pressurized environment as clubs would have a full set of fixtures to complete and a team feeling unduly treated can bounce back with a possible victory the following week. But what about cup matches or large tournament games like national or international tournaments? The pressure in these environments would be unbearable but yet there are thousands of referees across the rugby playing world go out every week and gladly put themselves into this pressure.
We know that their decisions and interpretation of the laws are crucial to the dynamics of a game and can indeed swing momentum for the detriment or benefit of a team. In some cases their decisions can cost games, we only have to cast our minds back to Chris White in the RBS 6 Nations 2007 when Wales were trailing 23-20 in the final minute and a penalty was awarded to the welsh team. Chris White said there was enough time for the kick to touch, when asked by the welsh captain, but when the ball went out the fourth official was heard to tell Chris White that the game was no over and to end the match. Wales lost the match and the welsh team, management and supporters were in uproar, the Italians didn’t mind it, but it is evident that referees hold such power in their decisions. Roll on to the end of that 2007 championship and the crucial last minute try by France which would put them ahead of Ireland on points difference and deny Ireland a 6 Nations title… I remember where I was sitting when I saw the try scored by “good ole” Elvis (Vermeulen), then the indecision of the referee Craig Joubert in referring it to the Third Match Official (TMO) and asked the dreaded line “Is there a reason I cannot award the try?” In that moment all Irish hearts sank… As that phrase did not allow the TMO (who was ironically Irish) to check the infringement that occurred beforehand, his focus had to be solely on the grounding, and the Try was awarded ending Irish hopes of a 6 Nations championship title. Again the pressure on all match officials in that game championship deciding moment some may say would have been a tiny bit stressful.
So it is evident that the top flight referees have a very stressful 80 minutes but we should remember that at this level the “man in the middle” has numerous lines of support in two very qualified linesmen, a Third Match Offical (TMO) and a fourth official dealing with sideline issues like substitutions, not to mention the number of camera angles to cover every piece of information. But what about the referee in grass roots of rugby and sport? These unfortunate yet eager officials only have one source of support on a game day…. Their own instinct! Yes in the All Ireland League there are at the minimum three qualified officials at the fixtures but beneath that referees have only clubmen running the line and most decisions have to come from their own interpretation.
Let’s put ourselves in their shoes… They arrive at a club that they have no affiliation with, get changed in a separate changing room, make pleasantries with the captains, coaches and management of the two teams and then prepare for the heckling from either teams supporters. They then get showered, maybe have some refreshments in the clubs bar and then leave, personally I marvel at every referee for doing what they do.
Present day referees must have also got a shock to their system as did players and coaches when the Experimental Law Variations came in, with some staying and others being declined. Which now means not only does a referee have to remember the large book of laws but now has to ensure these new variations are implemented on a game day too. All this to be done on his/her own, in maybe a cup or vital league fixture with supporters and their moods having a perpetual roller coaster ride dependent on the official’s decisions, I’d not be jumping at the change to do it.
I have refereed as an associate referee, in schools competitions, club youth leagues and cups and I found U18 club or even Yr 8 schools tournament a stressful time let alone being thrown into the hot bed of senior rugby.
I have also (not not too many occasions) been the irate coach on the side-line, feeling frustrated at decisions that may not have gone our way but in all my years of playing and coaching I have found one thing out. A coach/referee relationship seems to be won and lost in the first meeting of the individuals on game day, if a referee comes in very authoritarian with the coaching staff and the players this may well put the club on the defensive and have tempers fray towards the official. Especially if the referee claims “these are my interpretations and that is it”, then is believed not to follow his/her own criteria. In my experience as a coach with referees, the referee who comes in light-hearted, explains his viewpoint and is open to conversing with the players and coaching staff is more than likely to have a mitigating effect to how the players view them or respond to them in the game. I am not saying the referee must talk at every breakdown or misdemeanour but the knowledge that they are approachable at certain times certainly helps. Coaches also should always encourage their players to be respectful to the referee and should be respectful themselves as coaches are role models to their players. It would be beneficial for clubs to keep tabs on their supporters as well in what is acceptable and not acceptable practice on game day. Rugby referees still have the most power out of the all the other big sports officials (like Football or GAA) but we need to be vigilant that unacceptable behaviours towards referees are ruled out and made sure never arise again. In the end of the day if we did not have individuals put themselves forward to officiate games then there would be no game.
So the next time you see the man in the different colour top run onto the pitch we really should be upstanding and yell “For those who are about to referee… We Salute You!!”