Rugby has long treasured the way referees and match officials are treated with dignity, respect and honour, but are these attitudes changing?
We’ve all seen the meme about how South Africa’s Lood de Jager apologises to the referee, referring to the official as ‘sir’. It’s done the rounds on the internet and encapsulates how so many fans love the idea of the sport being held in higher esteem to others because of its perceived moral integrity and its pervading ‘spirit’ of friendship, comradeship and keeping what happens on the field exactly there.
Yet the people in the middle of every game have been hit hard by the arrival of professionalism. Every Six Nations or Rugby Championship match, international friendly, summer tour game or World Cup fixture one individual walks out onto the middle of the pitch and initiates a Test match. As soon as their whistle blows then they are under constant scrutiny.
It is not just the players that feel that furious and unwavering pressure but match officials too. Yet decisions that can affect the entire outcome of matches, pool stages, knock-out fixtures, series and tournaments lie on the shoulders of one person. With a player, at the very least, responsibility is apportioned out to the whole squad, but despite the presence of assistant referees and television match officials, it is the one in the middle who feels the brunt of the crushing force of thousands of judging eyes around you in the stadium and millions more watching on television sets across the world.
During any match it is so easy to forget this and too often now referees are being made scapegoats for results that do not go the way of one team or nation. Take a look at any Facebook page, Twitter feed, fan forum or generally any social media site during and after a match. Whilst there are reasoned and intelligent responses from many supporters, others descend into vile vitriol and outright abuse targeted at the person in the middle. Accusations of bias, of ulterior motives and agendas, of wanting to be the centre of attention or making games all about themselves. Rugby fans are often passionate, but there is simple no place in the game or indeed any sport for such reactions.
Many coaches, too, must rethink their way of handling themselves in the media after pivotal fixtures. You’ll so often here the platitude of rugby being a ‘results-driven business’ and those in charge of national sides know they are under the uninterrupted burden of needing to produce victories. However, this culpability can lead to coaches discussing their thoughts on referees’ performances after the training and preparation they have put in place for their charges has not quite led to style of win or indeed the win at all that they were aiming for.
But why do coaches do this? They know there are official channels to make complaints, away from the glare of the camera and the ubiquity of the microphone. It’s because they wish to deflect both the media and subsequently supporters’ attentions away from the scrutiny of both players and coaches in an attempt to control the narrative that is established after every game.
Our perceptions of games is changing because of the focus on officials. What is the first thing that springs to mind when you consider last year’s World Cup quarter-final between Australia and Scotland? Is it the fantastic performances by Scottish players? The determination of the Wallabies? Or is it Craig Joubert and his time out on the field that day?
Similarly, although most players still behave astutely and in exemplary fashion around referees, there are a few examples where the pressure of needing to perform and win is spilling over into anger and aggression targeted at match officials. Wales fly-half Dan Biggar’s reaction to a decision made by Marius Mitrea during the Old Mutual Wealth Cup against England in May of this year shocked many supporters simply because it seemed so out-of-place in any rugby match. Such a reaction on the football pitch would not have been an unusual occurrence.
Rugby needs to take a step back and reflect on the point of referees. They are there to act as adjudicators, as messengers of rugby’s governing body to ensure that the laws of the sport are applied fairly and consistently across a match. Referees are not commodities, they are not celebrities or characters in a soap to be gossiped over and have their integrity questioned over individual decisions.
Of course, referees make mistakes. They are human and are under intense pressure to apply the laws appropriately, laws which seem to change almost monthly. They are professionals doing jobs, jobs which are assessed and reviewed after each performance. If they don’t make the grade, then they don’t get to officiate matches of paramount importance. Fans deserve the right to debate and discuss any decision, but when that dialogue becomes abusive or personal then it is a problem.
Yes, referees are paid for their services, up to £55,000 for full-time test match officials, but no one in their own job would stand for abuse made against them, whether in person or online. Being in the public eye shouldn’t change that.
We all need to think again when it comes to match officials and make sure we treat them with the respect that has marked out rugby from other sports, or we begin to lose what makes our beloved game so special in the first place.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena