Rugby's values at threat as verbal and physical abuse of referees is on the rise
Referees have warned that rugby union’s core values of sportsmanship and respect are being eroded by a rise in the verbal and physical abuse of match officials.
A Daily Telegraph investigation yesterday revealed the serious problems facing referees in football, but new and previously unseen research has uncovered a comparable issue in rugby. The findings will shock many rugby fans, who have always believed that their sport is less troubled by abusive behaviour, and indicate a worrying wider societal trend.
More than 100 rugby referees were surveyed and, of those, 67 per cent said that they had been subjected to abuse. Of those, 90 per cent reported that it was verbal and 10 per cent said that it was physical. A clear majority – 74 per cent – also said that it was increasing and affecting their enjoyment of the game, while a big majority – 86 per cent – agreed there had been an erosion of respect and sportsmanship against the values of rugby.
“The findings are not dissimilar to football and it suggests we are dealing with a bigger societal issue,” said Dr Tom Webb, who collaborated on the research with his Portsmouth colleague Mike Rayner. “A lot of the same issues related to the last year and were quite shocking. Stories are coming up that a few years ago would have seemed unheard of.”
Further research is now under way but Webb also intends to look at cricket amid anecdotal evidence of similar problems. Potential theories include the rise of social media and the accelerated recent professionalisation of sports such as rugby and cricket. Some anecdotes from rugby referees who completed the survey were certainly troubling.
One respondent of West Indian origin said that “most abuse has been racially vocalised”. There was a referee who was locked in a dressing room and another shoulder charged by a player and called a “f------ cheat”.
The research found that the perpetrators of the abuse were divided almost equally between coaches, spectators and players. One respondent, called simply Albert, said: “It disappoints me because the level of abuse I hear today is not confined to senior rugby, but also youth rugby.
"When I started playing schools rugby in the 1970s and finished playing club rugby in the early 1990s, verbal abuse of the referee was frowned upon and team captains did not tolerate their players abusing referees. Today, I feel that the level of respect has dropped dramatically.
"Coaches abuse referees from the sideline, and so parents think ‘oh, it’s all right to do that then’ and they join in too. This then affects players and so it escalates. I enjoy refereeing but if there is one collective of related things that will lead me to stopping ahead of my intended use-by date, it will be the lack of respect, ungentlemanly conduct and general drop in standards of personal behaviour. I do not give up my time to be abused.”
Earlier this season, a Hampshire rugby match was abandoned after the referee, Phil Crossley, was allegedly caught up in an altercation involving players from both sides. He walked off the pitch after only 15 minutes of the London 3 South West game.
The punishments in rugby, however, do still appear rather more severe. In Cornwall this season, a Redruth player was banned for 18 weeks for “serious verbal abuse” of a match official.
“Sadly there are too many instances of this sort of behaviour,” said Graham Pauncefort, the Cornwall RFU disciplinary chief. “We will not tolerate this sort of behaviour. There is enough pressure on referees and we have lost a few already.”
London rugby clubs were warned last season of an “increasing problem” of verbal abuse in their games after two referees walked away from the sport in successive weekends.
The national RFU said yesterday that referee recruitment had remained constant at just over 2,000 each year and stressed its determination to uphold the sport’s values.
“Teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship are our core values and we expect everyone involved in rugby union, whether they are players, coaches, referees or spectators, to uphold these values,” said an RFU representative. “Match officials are an integral part of the rugby family.”