Rugby referees get psyched up before matches too: listen here

·11-min read
Christophe Ridley - Rugby referees get psyched up before matches too: listen here - GETTY IMAGES/Dan Mullan
Christophe Ridley - Rugby referees get psyched up before matches too: listen here - GETTY IMAGES/Dan Mullan

Referees are the most scrutinised and criticised members of professional rugby. They have no fans; a team of four neutral mercenaries employed to keep the peace in a sport where interpretation of the law dictates matches, and even players' careers.

To better understand the profession, Telegraph Sport shadowed Christophe Ridley, a Premiership regular who will be officiating at his first World Cup later this year. Our four-part series started on Tuesday with the coaching sessions that take place each week. Wednesday's instalment was a full explanation of match-day reviews, including a row about protecting scrum-halves at the ruck. On Thursday we explained what officials get up to on their days off. The series concludes below with a closer look at exactly what happens on a match day.

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First the cake, then the chest-bumps

All of the referees' graft and preparation crescendos to matchday. The game to which Telegraph Sport was invited is an evening fixture, leaving Ridley the whole day to mull over the events to come. The nerves build in the same way that a player’s might, but Ridley does his best to block them. There is no special routine, no nutrition regime, no pep talk in the mirror. “If you’re not careful, with these evening kick-offs, you can almost have refereed the game in your head before you arrive at the stadium,” he says. “And I often catastrophise. So, I try to avoid that.”

Ridley and his team of officials arrive at the stadium an hour and 45 minutes before kick-off. In their dressing room the kit is laid out immaculately and there there is a cake available as pre-match refreshment. The referees are elite professionals, of course, but the demands are not quite those of the players – they can indulge in pre-match cake if they so wish.

Cake in the referees dressing room
Cake in the referees dressing room

A technician from BT Sport enters to check the communications equipment that is used by Ridley on the field. Tonight, Ridley is accompanied by his two assistants, fourth and fifth officials, a time-keeper and Chris White, the former referee who will be assessing the officiating on the night. There is nervous anticipation in the air, the sort that hangs in any changing room. It lasts only momentarily, however, as one of the officials exclaims “f---, wrong socks!” The kit varies from match to match, sponsor to sponsor. Thankfully, one of his colleagues steps in with a spare pair.

We are whisked upstairs by the home side’s old boys’ committee for a cup of tea. It is a pre-match ritual at this ground, apparently, that the officials receive a welcome from some of the club’s former players.

Inside the TMO truck

Ridley and his assistants had a Zoom meeting a day before to catch up and discuss some of the trends exhibited by the two sides. The referee has also chatted with the two coaches, too. It means that the pre-match is largely academic. Ridley nips down to carry out the front-row briefing and check the players’ studs – a formality that occurs even at professional level – followed by the toss. It is the only event at which I am not welcome, because the briefing and stud-check take place in the players’ changing rooms. Ridley insists that I am not missing much; it is virtually identical to the happenings at grass-roots level.

While Ridley is briefing the sides, I visit the Television Match Official in his van outside. In what is essentially a portacabin on stilts, there is a wall of screens which the TMO will share with the television director. The official sits up close to three screens in particular, with the director positioned behind so that they can survey all the different camera angles for their coverage.

TMO screens at at rugby match
TMO screens at at rugby match

The TMO has three screens to work with – one live, one on delay, and one that he can pause/rewind – but, since this is a non-televised game, there are only eight cameras in play around the field. For games that feature on BT Sport there are 24. That is a significant disparity, which you might think makes the TMO’s job harder. After all, fewer cameras means fewer angles. While that is true, in a way it reduces the pressure. If there is no angle of a particular infringement – or if it is not “clear and obvious” – then there is no need for them to pass judgment. Play on.

Pre-match: 'If I'm missing something, f---ing tell me!'

Back in the changing rooms it is 30 minutes before kick-off  and the time has come for Ridley to reinforce parts of what was discussed over Zoom a day before.

“We know one of these teams wants the ball played away from scrums; the other wants to keep it in for a penalty. Balance!” he says.

Just how the teams run through their set-plays on the field, the officials do the same in the changing rooms. Ridley takes out his laptop and shows three clips of recent controversial incidents. For each one, the team of four officials pretend that they’re watching the action for the first time – and that they are the officials for it – and talk through their processes, almost like students completing past papers to prepare for an exam.

When the simulation has finished, Ridley and his assistants head out for a quick warm-up in the thickening drizzle and the TMO heads back to his van.

When the trio return, however, moments away from kick-off, something odd happens. With pre-match nerves now high, Ridley and his officials switch modes. While the BT technician straps their communication equipment underneath their jerseys, Ridley begins a pre-match pep talk. Studs clatter, there are deep, guttural noises, and the thud of chest on chest. The scenes are reminiscent of any rugby team and the officials thrive off the hype.

“I know we switch off on line-outs – I’m guilty of it myself – but please… just… work rate, hunt the ball!” Ridley exclaims. “And on the peels, don’t be afraid to butt in!

“And then TMO, establish the facts. Facts, facts, facts. Together on that. If I’m missing something then tell me I’m missing it. If I’m down the wrong lines and you guys are raising eyebrows at each other then just f------- say it to me: ‘No, Christophe, this is what we’re seeing.’ And I should be good enough to get a sniff that you’re uncomfortable in those moments – but I want you to be comfortable enough to tell me.”

With the group psyched, Ridley warns everyone to cover their ears, and with one blast of his whistle – to check it works – they are off to knock on the changing room doors.

Half-time: 'The pushing and shoving? Do I need to talk about it?'

At half-time, the officials return to the changing room for a debrief. En route, Ridley is singled out by a member of the crowd as he approaches the tunnel. “Ridley… s---, s---, s---,” the spectator shouts. Ridley ignores it. Once back inside the TMO joins from the truck and a half-time review commences.

Ridley: “[TMO], what does it look like from where you are?”

TMO: “The pictures look really good. [Team A] are not playing as expansively as [Team B]. But the breakdown looks good. [Team A] maybe a little bit slow [to roll away] on occasion, but nothing dramatic, no flashpoints.”

Ridley: “The pushing and shoving – do I need to talk about it?”

TMO: “You dealt with it. Seven [from Team A] has an excitable moment in him – he’s an excitable character – but he didn’t do anything wrong. The usual posturing when [Team B] didn’t like him driving a player through.

“The one you asked me to check near to the try, there was nothing obvious. I didn’t even see the pictures!”

Ridley: “They were complaining about a clear-out. I saw it – he smashes him.”

TMO: “Yep, it was a big clear-out but, for me, there was nothing clear to go after.”

Ridley: “Yeah, and we stay there. We don’t search for problems. It needs to be clear.”

(To the assistant referee) “Were you happy with what was said just then between the captain and me? It was a bit hard wasn’t it?”

Assistant referee 1: “The last point, as he walked away, was unnecessary. Harsh – but the rest is fine. He’s only grumpy because he doesn’t think he deserved to be put in the bin.”

Ridley: “But that was clear, wasn’t it?”

Assistant referee 1: “Yeah.”

Assistant referee 2: “He kicked the s--- out of the dugout when he went off.”

Ridley: “But it was clear. It was a penalty in the act of scoring a try.”

Assistant referee 1: “He did have a point that both bits of pushing involved [Team A’s] seven. But he was involved in the first one and then his six started the second one. [Team B] are not wholly innocent in those two bits. Maybe, if you get a chance, just have a word with [Team A] captain about seven, and just mention that he’s been involved in both incidents. But let’s also understand that [Team B] are not innocent.”

Ridley: “It’s just an awareness thing, isn’t it. What we can’t have is pushing and shoving because it brings attention to us. So, if we have another moment like that, I’ll have to speak to them. If there’s a clear instigator, let’s take it. If someone clearly starts it, then let’s take it, because if we can nip it in the bud with a decision, that’s better than talking about it after the third one.”

TMO: “The penalty count is seven all. There’s been a bit of a swing since the beginning of the game.”

Ridley: “What do we think about that penalty advantage being called over, too? Too short? They broke the whole way down the wing.”

TMO: “That was fine, no reason to come back for that one. The one I thought was a bit short was the kick in the 22, from the knock-on, where they were always under pressure.”

Ridley: “Yeah I wasn’t expecting that. He’s executed what he’s wanted to execute but it wasn’t a good choice given they were under pressure.

“It’s been gritty but we roll our sleeves up and start again. We don’t have to go out with anything – no trends, no baggage – and we’ll just go again.”

Assistant referee 1: “The breakdown is nice and clear.”

Assistant referee 2: “The actual game is pretty good – it’s just when it stops.”

Ridley: “How long until we go back out? Charles?”

Ridley turns to me jokingly – and everyone laughs. Even after 40 minutes of high-pressure rugby, there is still time for levity.

Eventually, the TMO returns to the truck and the officials head back onto the pitch.

Post-match: 'I've left the field at peace'

Afterwards, the catharsis. The game has finished and the officials return to the changing room. I ask Ridley for his emotions.

“You always feel drained and worn down when you come off a game like that… mentally, so fatigued because 500 things are happening,” he says. “Even when you’re not making a decision you’re choosing not to.”

Were there any key decisions running through his head? Any regrets?

“I’m always conscious of my relationships and my communications throughout the game,” he says. “I think back to a couple of interactions I had where I maybe could have been more open, vulnerable, or softer with the way I spoke to the players. But, there’s a balance to be struck because if I’m going to maintain space in order to make decisions, I can’t just allow players to flood towards me and ask loads of questions. For me, it’s about getting that balance right.”

I ask him to rate his own performance out of 10.

"It was one of those games where I know there will be technical bits around breakdown and scrum [that might be debatable] but in terms of equity and making sure the ‘right’ side won the game, I don’t think I deserve to be spoken about,” he says.

I ask again for a mark.

“It happens so fast and I haven’t watched it back but I’ve left the field at peace,” he says.

No mark? “At peace,” he says.

Due to the late kick-off, there is no post-match function – but that does not bother Ridley. His week’s work is done. He picks up his bag and a plastic tub of chicken teriyaki and heads out to meet his parents and girlfriend Katie. For now, the reviews can wait – but they are on the horizon. On Monday morning, it all starts again.

The first three parts of this series on referees were about the regular coaching sessions, an explanation of match-day reviews and a referee's home life.