The Referees


Regular readers of my ramblings will know that the referees and their management of rugby games has been a particular bugbear of mine for some time. I have made regular comment about woeful performances and complete lack of visible action by rugby’s administrators to fix a problem that is having a very serious and negative impact on our game.


Let me start this discussion by saying that I fully appreciate the role of a referee. When 30 behemoths tackle each other on a sports field with the sole objective of causing mayhem amongst their opponents you simply have to have someone who focuses their efforts on playing within the Laws of the game as agreed and published by the authorities who govern the game on the international stage.


If we accept that those 30 rugby players will make somewhere around 125 to 150 mistakes that require the referee to blow his whistle during the 80 minutes of a rugby match, then we must surely accept that the referee will also make a couple of mistakes too. Rugby players make on average of 4 to 5 mistakes each during a game, the ref must also be given a little leeway.


However, when the referee makes a total hash of the application of a simple law, or when he introduces his own interpretation of the laws that are not found anywhere except in his head, then there is something wrong. If a referee cannot apply the law when he has had multiple views of an incident on a huge television screen, consultation with supposedly equally well-qualified Assistant Referees and Television Match Officials, and still gets it wrong, then there is something seriously wrong with the game of rugby.


The media uproar about the poor performance of a number of the referees during the last week has finally triggered some action by SANZAR’s Lyndon Bray, who stated: “There are some basic standards that have simply not been upheld over this past weekend.”


He did not mention names but was quite obviously referring to Glen Jackson’s handling of the Chiefs/Hurricanes encounter, and to Rohan Hoffmann’s woeful performance in the game between the Sharks and the Waratahs. The Television Match Officials who “let him down” were Vinny Munro and George Ayoub.


The two referees, Jackson and Hoffmann, are “demoted” to running the touchline as Assistant referees in the coming weekend’s Super Rugby fixtures, while Munro and Ayoub get a week off.


Whether these “demotions” are anything more than a smokescreen remains to be seen. SANZAR regularly rotates referees from whistle carrying to line running duties, and Jackson and Hoffmann have both served in either capacity throughout the season, as has every other Super 15 referee!


The reality is that neither of the two referees will suffer any real consequence for their failure as referees.


Rohan Hoffmann is a serial offender, just a week ago he had the Waratahs officials and supporters up in arms about his mishandling of their game against the Force. Not too long ago, Week 8 of the 2015 competition, he had the Stormers in an uproar about his handling of their game against the Hurricanes, one that included three dubious tries to the Canes, a deliberate slapdown of the ball by Conrad Smith while the Stormers were within range of the goal line that was completely ignored, and then the disallowing of a Stormers try that might just have swung the game away from the Canes.


Mr Hoffmann is on record in an interview in Portugal, who he represented as a midfielder, as saying: “I would have to say that I tend to rely more on my knowledge of the ‘game’ than the law book.” That is a sad indictment from someone who is supposed to be a senior referee. He admits to ignoring the laws……………….


As for the TMO’s, we will also wait and see when their names resurface in the weekly appointment listings.


These issues with the competence and consistency of the referees are not something new. The complaints about officials and their impact on the game are not a monster that has only recently reared it’s ugly head. This stuff has been going on for some years, and it is time for rugby authorities to take some hard decisions and make the changes that are necessary to fix what is broken.


We can go on and list all the mistakes and issues we have with referees and their handling of games, but that would simply be a waste of time. Everyone who thinks about this great game realises that there is a serious problem that needs fixing.


I guess that the single most important issue that faces rugby officialdom and the on-field management of games is that we have a fully professional sport where the referees and adjudicators are mostly all amateurs!


Let that little bit of information sink right in. A professional sport is being policed by amateurs.


Examine the implications. If a professional rugby player, say a Dan Carter or a Marnitz Boshoff, Frans Steyn, or Richie McCaw is not playing to the standard required by his coach and team he faces the danger of being dropped from the team and, if his poor form persists, he may even lose his contract as a professional, and he will have to seek alternative employment. A top professional rugby player earns a healthy income from the game, and a lack of form or persistent mistakes, disciplinary problems and the like can, and will, result in serious financial consequences of he cannot fix his problems.


What if an amateur referee gets it all wrong? Well then he will have his day job to fall back on. The only consequence of his failure is that he will lose some pocket money, but he will still have a job. He can still pay the bills, although he might not be wearing a Rolex watch anymore..


At the risk of boring those that have heard this stuff from me before: Stuart Berry owns and manages an events management company in Durban. He has an MSc qualification too. Losing his status as a rugby referee might impact on his social standing, but it will not deprive him of a living! Jaco Peyper is an Attorney at Law. Jaco van Heerden is an Advocate of the High Court.


Rohan Hoffmann is an English language teacher and has a commercial pilots licence.


Andrew Lees is a PE teacher, while Angus Gardener has a degree in Property Economics and works for a school as their property manager. Matt O’Brien is a Pharmacist. Over in the UK Stuart Barnes is another legal man. Lourens van der Merwe is a school teacher in Bloemfontein.


There are a small number of full time referees, Craig Joubert, Chris Pollock, Glen Jackson to name some of the few. Steve Walsh was Australia’s only full timer until he inexplicably (but thankfully) vanished from the scene.


The first and most glaring problem rugby faces with on-field officialdom is that they are amateurs attempting to rule the roost over a professional game.


The issue does not stop there. During the professional era of the game of rugby officialdom has stepped in and made fundamental changes to the way the game is played in their misguided and singularly unsuccessful attempts to make the game more attractive and safer! The referees have been a very important contributing factor in these attempts to “fix” the game, and the result has been a game that borders on being permanently broken.


Take the example of the scrum.


Go back to the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament and count the number of collapsed scrums that occurred during the entire tournament. There were very very few such incidents. The Springbok campaign from the kick-off against Australia at Newlands, to the final whistle and victory at Ellis Park saw just two scrums that collapsed. One was in the mudbath of Kingspark against France where both teams simply slithered facedown into the mud. Scrums simply did not collapse in those bad old days!


During the 2015 Rugby Championships, contested between the Big Four of Southern Hemisphere Rugby, we had 77% of all scrums collapsing at the first attempt!!! (These are the published statistics provided by World Rugby!)


What had changed?


Let’s simply say that the referees intervened. They wanted to make the game “safer” as if a collapsed scrum is safer than one that did not collapse! We have already walked the way of Crouch, Touch, Pause, Take a Photograph and Smile, Engage. It was a complete failure.


Now we have Crouch, Bind, Set….


This whole sequence starts by the referee insisting on a clear space between the two front rows heads when they crouch!


This insistence on space starts the whole thing on the wrong page! Law 20.1 f) is very clear:


(f)  Front rows coming together. First, the referee marks with a foot the place where the scrum is to be formed. Before the two front rows come together they must be standing not more than an arm’s length apart. The ball is in the scrum half’s hands, ready to be thrown in. The front rows must crouch so that when they meet, each player’s head and shoulders are no lower than the hips. The front rows must interlock so that no player’s head is next to the head of a team-mate. Sanction: Free Kick


When the two front rows form up they “must be standing not more than an arm’s length apart.” If they are an arms length apart and they crouch, there simply cannot and will not be a clear space between the two sets of forwards heads. It is physically impossible, yet the refs are insisting on this space. The law further requires their heads to interlock – the refs do not want this happening!


Then there is the sequence: Crouch, Bind, Set!


The simple dynamics of this scrum set sequence is all wrong. Firstly, by insisting that there be a clear space between the players before the scrum engages the two packs will be too far apart and, like a bridge that has insufficient supports, it will all collapse in a heap. Secondly by binding before you set, the sequence of events that used to make for a solid scrum is reversed. In the bad old days of solid scrums that did not go to ground, the “set and bind” were simultaneous, with the actual bind being just a fraction behind the actual moment of contact.


How did all this come about? Well, some people, mostly referees, who had never bound in the front row of a scrum became involved in “making the scrum safer” – to quote from the World Rugby Statistical Report for the 2014 Rugby Championships: This was an initiative aimed at enhancing player welfare by reducing impact on engagement by 25 per cent.”


The effect on the game has been disastrous. There is the stultifying spectacle of referees causing scrums to be reset time after time, together with constant lectures about how the players should be scrumming. There are heaps of sweating players falling to the dirt time after time. The average scrum takes between 2 and 4 minutes to complete – there are an average of 8 scrums per top level game today. Do the math! That is somewhere between 16 and 34 minutes of the game time wasted as scrums are set and collapsed! No wonder spectators are staying away!


And then there are the penalties! When the referee’s whistle blasts and an arm flies skywards there will be 16 forwards looking at him to try and figure out what the reason for his decision will be this time – they certainly have no idea. Those of us watching from the touchlines and stands will be equally mystified by the decision. That doyen of referees in the Western Cape, Paul Dobson, calls it the “homemade” laws that each referee makes up in his own head and that you will not find in the written version issued by World Rugby.


A quick scan through Law 20, the Scrum, and Law 10, Foul Play, gives you just one infringement where a penalty is awarded for a player lifting his head out of the front row – “popping” as it is sometimes termed. And that penalty is against the front rower who lifted the opponent out of the scrum! Nowhere, and I repeat this, nowhere in the Laws of the game is a player penalised for popping out of the scrum when the pressure gets too much.


Law 10,4 k) is quite specific about what are considered penalisable offences in the scrum, ruck or maul:


Dangerous play in a scrum, ruck or maul. The front row of a scrum must not rush against its opponents.

Sanction: Penalty kick


Front row players must not intentionally lift opponents off their feet or force them upwards out of the scrum. Sanction: Penalty kick


Players must not charge into a ruck or maul without binding onto a player in the ruck or maul. Sanction: Penalty kick


Players must not intentionally collapse a scrum, ruck or maul.

Sanction: Penalty kick


That second line is very specific – “must not intentionally lift opponents off their feet or force them upwards out of the scrum”


Is there some part of this Law that is not clear? How come the referees are penalising the guy who gets lifted????


If we look a bit further into the actual written Law, we find Law 20,4 g)


(g)  If a scrum collapses or lifts up into the air without sanction a further scrum will be ordered and the team who originally threw in the ball will throw the ball in again.


If a scrum has to be reformed for any other reason not covered in this Law the team who originally threw in the ball will throw the ball in again.


This section of the law provides for NO sanction at all if the scrum collapses or lifts up in the air. What then are the referees penalising??


Law 20,8 goes much further:


  1. g) Twisting, dipping or collapsing. Front row players must not twist or lower their bodies, or pull opponents, or do anything that is likely to collapse the scrum, either when the ball is being thrown in or afterwards. Sanction: Penalty kick


(h)  Referees must penalise strictly any intentional collapsing of the scrum. This is dangerous play.

Sanction: Penalty kick


(i)  Lifting or forcing an opponent up. A front row player must not lift an opponent in the air, or force an opponent upwards out of the scrum, either when the ball is being thrown in or afterwards. This is dangerous play. Sanction: Penalty kick


These clauses are very clear in their intent and wording. No twisting, no dipping, no collapsing – bit absolutely nothing about scrumming inwards on an opponent! A very very clear message is coming through: When the referee penalises a defending player for popping out of the front row, he is a) Not applying the law as it is written, nor is he b) Penalising the correct player!


The nonsense, perpetuated by our knowledgeable television commentators, that the referee penalises the first head to pop out is simply an aberration and a totally incorrect application of the written laws.


We can go on and on about laws that are being misinterpreted by the referees and misapplied – the direction of hands when passing the ball to determine a forward pass must be the ultimate misapplication of a very simple law. Putting the ball in straight at the scrum is a law that is simply ignored. The off-side line at rucks and mauls is a fantasy. The Rolling Maul itself has become legalised obstruction. Stuart Berry’s variation of “protecting the receiver” when fielding a kick that simply takes the chaser right out of the game removes the up-and-under and the box kick from the game altogether.


If we sit back and think about the problems that face our game, and there are many, one of the biggest is the issue of referees.


Way back in the dim and distant past a referee was appointed to manage a game, and when the game was over the referee as soon forgotten. They were committed servants of the game that sought no recognition and avoided the limelight.


No so today. The referee has become a personality! As David Campese puts it: “They think they are celebrities!” For a hundred years the referee was one of the backroom boys, now they publish biographies! I have no doubt some will have interesting stories to tell, but I have also read one or two that are hugely self-aggrandising and full of their own self importance. Something is wrong here!


I do not begrudge the professional referee who, at the end of a long career decides to tell his story and share some of the anecdotes and moments from his unique position on the field. There is a story there! I do however have an issue with those that want to tell us how important they are to the game!


Rugby faces many challenges in the immediate future. Our game is in need of a complete revamp.


The laws need to be revisited and rewritten to simplify and make them easily understood by all. The unnecessary or silly bits must be thrown in the bin where they belong. (Who cares if a prop binds in his opponent’s armpit? It is to his own detriment… Who cares if he puts a hand on the ground to help keep the scrum up?)


The rucks need to be cleaned up and simplified, with an off-side line that allows the ball to be used by the scrumhalf without having three tons of forward flesh looming over him. Perhaps follow the lead of league rugby, only two defending players may stay at the ruck once the ref calls it, the rest must fall back 10 meters. That is why league rugby is known for running rugby! Get that line of defenders back from the last feet, maybe a 5 meter line would be good?


Sort out that aberration called the rolling maul. Somehow we need to allow a team to defend the maul, at the moment it is simply a variation of the illegal flying wedge! Allow the maul to be sacked! Do something to make it a more even contest and encourage running the ball.


Get rid of the pedantic stuff that slows, even stops, the game! Follow soccer’s example, if a player is off-side but not having any influence on the game, let it go! Let the game flow. If a player is accidentally off-side, but it causes no advantage to his team, let it go!


Spectators do not want to see massive muscle-bound men trundling the ball up and down the field in a mass display of all-in wrestling – they want to see the ball doing the work. They want to see slight of hand and quick passes, they want to see fleet footed backs running around opponents, and most of all they want to see tries being scored!


Get the refs back into a position where they apply the laws as they are written, without adding their own interpretations of the law – If their national referee’s association feels that a law needs to be applied differently, they should go through the formal channels and attempt to get the law changed, not apply it as they see fit.


Most importantly, bring the entire referee body into the modern age. Make them as professional as the sport they are policing!


Make then all professionals if they are in charge of professional games! There is still room for amateur rugby in our sport, hence there will always be room for amateur referees too!


This is not as difficult or complicated as it sounds.


Rugby offers youngsters the opportunity to choose the sport as a profession, some will be relegated to the lower leagues and might well need a second job to supplement their income, and some may be good enough to earn a very good living from their sport. Some may excel at their sport and earn eye-wateringly huge amounts by accepting the financial inducements of foreign clubs. This is what professionalism is all about.


Rugby should go further than that, offer youngsters the option of becoming professional referees! Some may be too small or too light to play the game but would love to be involved in some other way. Give those who do not want to play the game professionally another option to stay in the game.


They can be accommodated in a national or a franchise based rugby academy environment – the facilities are already there and require no great additional expense! They can be taught the basics of the game itself, gaining an understanding of the mechanics of the scrum, the line-out and other phases of play. They can be taught the essential skills needed to manage players on the field. They can be taught the laws of the game in a professional, full-time environment. They can be taught and trained to be referees.


Allocate each trainee referee to a school or club, and send them to the practices. They will observe the training and will learn about the tactics and strategies of the game. They will experience the practical application of the laws in a team environment. Allow them to officiate at the school or club practices, be it matches, or lineout drills, or scrums, or whatever – they will gain the experience they desperately need. An added benefit – the players will practice and learn within the actual practical application of the laws. No surprises come Saturday!


Let the trainees “job shadow” qualified referees – send them to the clubs and games and let them sit in the Refs change rooms, let them sit with the TMO, who should also be a qualified ref and who can coach them about what is happening on the field of play. Let them run with the Assistant Referee as a kind of ball-boy. Make them part of the officiating team.


Start their refereeing duties with lower leagues and let them develop until they are ready to be senior referees. No different from today, other than that they will be full-time referees with no other day-job distractions. Reward them properly, give them the stability of employee benefits such as medical aid and the like.


Make the referees an integral part of the professional game! Soccer has done this, all over the world! Cricket has done this too! Tennis has gone the same route! Baseball has a corps of professional umpires, as has American Football and Ice Hockey too.


Rugby is a professional sport, make the officials professionals too!


I end by quoting Lyndon Bray: “Public confidence in match officials is essential to the ongoing success of our product and we will continue striving to enhance the quality and accountability of refereeing across all SANZAR competitions.”  It is time that we put some action behind those words Mr Bray.