The behaviour of professional players and coaches is having a direct effect on the “alarming” rise of abuse of officials at grassroots level, according to English rugby’s top referee officials.
Last week, the Rugby Football Union’s disciplinary hearings handed out two lengthy bans for separate incidents of referees being shoulder barged on the pitch by players. Another recent case includes a 17-year-old referee claiming the adult coach of a youth team threatened to “smash [his] head in” after sending him off.
This concerning treatment of grassroots referees is what prompted Mike Priestley, the chair of the Rugby Football Referees’ Union, to submit a letter to Anthony Watson’s disciplinary hearing last week.
While cases of physical confrontation are mercifully rare, Priestley’s growing fear is that the recent high-profile examples of elite referees being abused, whether on social media or on the pitch, are now permeating through a sport that is already struggling with referee numbers.
“Since the restart of rugby when the pandemic restrictions eased there has been a growth in the reporting of incidents (of abuse of officials),” Priestley told Telegraph Sport. “It’s alarming. That’s the reason we wanted to make a stance early so we can get on top of the issue before it becomes a substantial problem.
“If you see Premier League footballers surrounding a referee in a high-profile game then undoubtedly you would see that on the back pitches in your local park. What we wanted to say to RFU discipline from a referee union perspective and on behalf of our members in the county societies is an acknowledgment is that those behaviours, which are not aligned to the sport’s core values, when seen at the higher levels of the sport will have an impact at the lower levels of the sport.”
“The majority of people involved in officiating are volunteers. We are trying to recruit and retain enough match officials to service the game at a local level. Their enjoyment of the game is just as important as the players and coaches.
“We want to avoid things that will have an impact on our ability to recruit and retain those referees. I personally think just by having it acknowledged, having it recognised and dealt with at all levels and making sure those people who are impacted by it are made aware of the consequences of people’s actions is really key.”
Priestley’s opinion is echoed by Michael Patz, the RFU's match official development manager, who says high-profile players must be aware of the example their actions set.
“I would say they are in the public eye and their behaviours are seen by everyone in the game and are replicated so really holding the core values of the game and understanding their responsibilities are really important,” Patz said.
“As someone involved in match official development, I don’t want to miss the next Wayne Barnes or the next Nigel Owens because he or she chooses not to take up the whistle for fear of the culture.”
Steep decline in refereeing numbers
His concerns have been heard by the Rugby Football Union who recently appealed against the leniency of a ban for referee abuse resulting in the suspension increasing from eight to 32 weeks.
An RFU spokesperson said: “The RFU takes any allegation of abuse extremely seriously, which is why we directed for these cases to be heard by RFU disciplinary panels and they have taken swift action to impose significant sanctions.
“The RFU publishes all judgments to increase awareness of the serious consequences of any behaviour that contradicts the core values of the game. Alongside regular work in the community game with clubs and Constituent Bodies, the RFU is working closely with PRL and its independent analysts to review player behaviours that could be considered against the values of the game.”
The ongoing issue of referee retention was brought into sharp focus by the pandemic. While the RFU were anticipating a drop in numbers when rugby resumed after an 18-month hiatus, they were shocked by the anecdotal evidence suggesting a much steeper decline.
This was reinforced by a survey which showed a third of referees had not picked up a whistle in the first month after rugby resumed in September, which led to a number of grassroots games being postponed.
“We had to go to plan D with the shortfall,” Patz said. “We had anticipated the extent of the drop off. We looked a various options to keep people engaged during the pandemic and the interactions were reasonable. We were caught on the back foot but you never know until you get there what people’s attentions are.”
Initiatives such as Keep Your Boots On, which encourages former players to stay involved in the game whether as a referee or a coach, have stemmed the losses. In the last five years, 4,711 referees have qualified through RFU courses. A follow-up survey of the referee society conducted last week showed 85 per cent of referees have now taken charge of a game.
Recruitment and retention remain critical priorities for the RFU’s community department. After all if there is no referee, there is no game. “Now we need to work out how to engage them more and bring in the 15 per cent who have not refereed,” Patz said.
“Referees want to enjoy their pastime and their voluntary engagement with rugby. Anything that undermines their ability to do that will be a concern.”
Being shouted at can send your self-worth through the floor but refereeing is a labour of love
By Neil Sweeney
For many that take up the whistle, it is a labour of love. I’m currently a level four referee, which means I oversee matches in the National Leagues. I was promoted to this level around Christmas in 2019 having formally retired from playing at Esher two years previously. I had refereed through work, as an RFU community coach and development officer, and just wanted to throw myself into it. I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy it.
For the first couple of years, I was doing 50 or 60 games per season. If you consider that the season is about 30 weeks long, that is two matches per week. Nothing will replace playing, which I really miss – especially the camaraderie and the away trips. But there is an element of control with refereeing and there is more to it than individual decisions. Going into it, I was pretty naïve to the concept of game management. I’m still learning about that and always will be.
Another strange side to it is the expectations of a referee, which links to the Rassie Erasmus episode. The expectation is that you are perfect and get everything right. Rugby union is pretty subjective and there is a lot going on. You can only see so much.
I have had three-hour journeys back home from games with one decision nagging at me until I saw it again on video. And I appreciate that I am lucky to get a video of my games. Lower down the levels, referees have to live with it and put it to bed. That is just one way in which you have to be resilient.
I feel like I got my mojo back last month but the previous two games I had not enjoyed for one reason or another – a busy week, preparation that wasn’t brilliant, travel. I did not have my best games and I knew it. When that happens, players can bicker among themselves and at you.
I see it as an official’s job to uphold the game’s values, but it’s also up to coaches to coach them and players to know what behaviours are expected. I would say that it is easy to look at mistakes that referees make because they are easy targets.
With any decision, you have to place it in context with what has happened over the rest of the game. I don’t think the Rassie thing has helped any appetite to get into officiating, although there is the other side of the coin to think about. The persona of referees is changing. Some are mini-celebrities. Others have done punditry. Most of them will explain their decisions.
As a player, I preferred a referee I could work with but didn’t really notice. Being overly officious can negatively impact on the enjoyment of the game for everyone - coaches, players and referee. All in all, it’s a weird balancing act. And we cannot forget spectators. The reason that World Rugby is simplifying the law book is to make the sport more commercially attractive.
I can remember doing a game in and I just blew the arse off it. There were so many whistles, and I was fortunate enough to be able to have a chat with a fellow Hampshire referee afterwards. He said: ‘What’s changed?’ I think I’d lost my way a bit because I was thinking too much. When we reviewed it, we agreed that I should have given far fewer penalties, even though the ones I did award were technically accurate. That is what I mean about game management.
My first-ever fully-fledged league game took place on a lovely, sunny day. It went well. For 75 minutes. Then I switched off, and it descended into meltdown because I thought my job was done. That was an important lesson.
Some matches are great, and you can feel players are in tune with how you’re working. Others are characterised by players and coaches shouting at you for 80 minutes, and your self-worth goes through the floor. Then you figure out whether or not you can shake that off.
A number of colleagues have had high-impact decisions go the wrong way. They have fallen out of refereeing or had their progression halted because of brief moments in time. As a referee, you are clamouring for an opportunity at the next level.
When you get there, you do not want to mess it up and that brings a different kind of pressure. At lower levels, players would ask ‘are you being assessed today?’ If the answer was ‘yes’, their faces would drop because they would know the referee would probably be nervous. All of those are challenges facing prospective officials, too.
I would like to take refereeing as far as I can but there is only so much space at the top. Most of the best in the country are very young, very driven and dedicate a lot of time to their fitness, physique, match preparation and reviews. It might turn out that I’m not good enough for that level anyway. Whatever happens, I am determined to keep enjoying it and I would recommend anybody thinking of trying it out to do so.