Saturday 21 April 2018

Silence to referees must again be golden

Referee Jerome Garces speaks to captain Dylan Hartley during England’s victory against South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Referee Jerome Garces speaks to captain Dylan Hartley during England’s victory against South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Mick Cleary

March him back 10 metres! No questioning the referee's decision. No chatting with players. No telling them that they are infringing. Just blow the whistle and award the free-kick or penalty. And as for the constant referral to the television match official...

That is the gist of my views to be aired today at the World Rugby Conference in London alongside such luminaries as 2015 World Cup final referee Nigel Owens, former leading official and current high performance refs' manager Alain Rolland, as well as Munster head coach and former Springbok Rassie Erasmus, on a panel session entitled 'Image of the Game: Respect for the match official, a tradition worth maintaining'.

My inclusion can only be due to the fact that they want a Grumpy Old Man element to the debate, a voice of discord perhaps among those with an inclination towards constant interaction with players throughout a game.

Those who purchased Ref Link at Twickenham last Saturday, and other versions elsewhere, will know that your eardrums are invariably ringing at the end of the 80 minutes from the continual cacophony of voices coming down the line: ref to player, player to ref, a veritable babble.

Why, for example, is the 10m law, one of the best in all sport, so little used these days? Are players so much better behaved than once they were? Or is there simply more tolerance of decisions being questioned?

Football tried to adopt the law but to little effect. Yet, at a stroke, it solves all instances of dissent through peer-group pressure. You soon get a rollicking to end all rollickings when your team-mates turn on you for the petulance that has allowed their goal-kicker to get within range and land three points. Simple law, decisive outcome. Use it more.

Officials argue that all this interaction helps the flow of the game. As well as educating players.


French referee Jerome Garces could be heard admonishing England in the early stages of Saturday's game against South Africa as they constantly infringed, either creeping up on the offside line or entering the ruck from the side. Six penalties were given away in the opening 20 minutes. England captain Dylan Hartley was warned about his players' transgressions. And it was sorted.

The flip side to such a go-between arrangement is that players get used to appealing to the referee or to the touch judge (the assistant referee). How many times have we seen players turn to a touch judge, pointing out some supposed misdemeanour at the scrum or the breakdown? Whatever happened to the adage that only the captain can approach the referee, and only then to seek clarification, not to query or challenge?

It used to be joked that past masters of the art of intervention, the likes of former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick and his England counterpart Lawrence Dallaglio, were presented with silver bowls by the Referees' Association on their retirement from playing such had been their involvement with refereeing down the years.

To my mind, the exchanges sanctioned these days between player and official are the thin end of the wedge.

There were reports from France at the weekend that administrators there are concerned about the undermining of the referee's authority. Didier Mene, a former referee now in charge of his federation's officials, believes that it has reached crisis point, telling The Rugby Paper that "the climate has grown worse. You see it with players screaming for video replays, raising their arms to the sky over every decision. Some of them never stop talking on the pretence they are captains. [Ref microphones] have made referees more accessible and some people are taking advantage of that."

Top officials such as Owens will always be able to deal with whatever comes their way. There is no better figure out there for the ready-made put-down to players who are getting too big for their boots. Chris Robshaw, hardly a subversive figure, was quickly put in his place a couple of years ago when Owens addressed him simply as the more formal "Christopher".

Owens can look after himself, as he has done on so many fronts. Yet there must be worries for lower-tier officials who lack his presence or quick, ad-libbing tongue. How do they deal with constant badgering from players copying the behaviour of those whom they see on television?

And Owens himself is not immune from criticism, scalding at times.


High-profile occasions tend to engender raw emotions, as the Welshman found out a few weeks ago when former Wallaby Rod Kafer was scathing on television about a decision Owens made when ruling out an Australia try against New Zealand in Auckland.

Kafer said that Owens should never referee again (a remark he later said that he regretted). Damage done, though. But if you invite debate, encourage interaction, how do you set the limits, never mind the tone?

Grudgingly, many of us have accepted the use of a TMO. There is a delicate balance to be had though, as its very presence can challenge the ubiquity of the referee who, in former times, was considered right even when he was wrong.

At least there is no longer constant recourse to the TMO with referees afraid to make up their own minds. That effective bypassing was a seriously worrying development and has been, partially at any rate, corrected.

Rugby sometimes adopts a pompous, holier-than-thou attitude towards its sport by belittling trends in football. Its attitude to referees, the sacrosanct nature of his or her authority, falls into that category. Many think that rugby has far more respect for the referee than football does.

That just might be true. But the warning signs are there and need to be addressed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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