Talking Referees

Mon, 12 Dec 2016 20:52

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Since the introduction of the talking referee, ways of addressing the players have varied.

In days of yore the referee had three gestures - try, penalty and scrum - and a whistle which called for action or, mostly, inaction. But in those days referees did not speak. Gestures and whistle did all the speaking needed.

Now 'management' has become important and with it a lot of talking, bordering on coaching. It's a big change in refereeing style.

Some 40 years ago a captain asked Fred Corin, the referee, why he had penalised. Corin spoke: "I'm not here to teach you the laws but to see that you adhere to them. Please, let me do my job."

Such a response would produce horror in the modern referee, who would see Corin as monster of sorts, not the excellent referee that he was.

We are not going into the management uses, like 'release', 'tackle only', 'leave him', 'stay back 10', which seems to have encouraged players to try to manage the referee with shouting of their own - 'holding', 'release', 'offside'.

We are not even talking about 'please' and 'thank you' as if complying with the law is doing the referee a favour.

We are not even talking about the times when the referee acts as law-maker - 'I want you..', 'I am not going to allow..', 'I cannot allow...', even though the laws are made by someone else and his job is merely to see that players comply with them. They are rugby's laws, not his. In fact the little word 'I' should be eliminated from the referee's vocabulary. It's hard to see when it would be necessary, certainly not in the examples here and in the sidestepping with such things as 'I will be forced to..', 'You leave me option but to..' where what is being talked of is a disciplinary card of feverish yellow or hectic red. Why not say it as it is with no apologetic circumlocution.

Management makes demands of lingual skills as when a French-speaking team plays a Spanish team with an Afrikaans-speaking referee. It is generally accepted, it seems, that the lingua franca for referees is English, as happens for air traffic controllers.

But this should be done with basic English. There was once a match with Italy playing and a New Zealander refereeing and he asked the Italians for their 'skipper'. They were nonplussed, having nobody named Skipper in their side - Quintin Geldenhuys yes, but not Skipper.

We are talking about how we address them, teams and players - the old vocative case for those who remember the days when referees shaved and wore black footwear and schools taught Latin.

Teams, it seems, become colours. Wales do not play France - Red plays Blue. Black plays White when New Zealand and England meet. And it goes on. Earlier this week there was the Varsity match when the Blues of Oxford meet the Blues of Cambridge but it became Blue vs White.

There are times when this could be confusing. If the Bulls of Pretoria play the Blues of Auckland and, on this day, the Bulls play in blue, as they mostly do, but the Blues play in white, the Blues are called white - Blue plays White but the Blues' players must realise that the Blues are the opponents and they are white. It is not the only example. Toulon in Red play the Scarlets in blue. The Scarlets, who wore red one week and blue this last weekend while their opponents wore red, wore blue. Next week, the Scarlets will be red - red not scarlet, look you, for it seems referees are not allowed to call them by the name they call themselves.

Then there are still referees - a tiny minority - who still call England England and New Zealand New Zealand and Blues Blues, reactionary as it may seem.

There is nothing in law to guide the referee in the way he labels teams, just there are no laws/regulations/protocols for speaking to teams and players in management.

Players, it seems, are numbers like suspects in a police lineup. So David Pocock becomes Gold Seven as Richie McCaw was Black Seven and Jonathan Joseph is White Thirteen and Tendai Mtawarira is Green One.

There is a case for this if it is too much for a referee to memorise all 46 player names for a match. It would be better than calling one player David and his opponent Seven. That smacks of favouritism.

But it seems well on the way to becoming the big-match custom that a captain will have a name. He is no longer captain, but John or Kieran or Adriaan, though France's captain, Guilhem Guirado, remains 'captain', his name possibly too much for anglophones.

The palsywalsy side of refereeing management seems, for some, to require a general term for players. So they become guys or boys (in New Zealand pronounced boyce, lads, fellas and so on. (Chaps is now too old-fashioned toffee.) Boys can seem odd when some of the players are older than the referee while fellas smacks of patronising. There are some who prefer to call their players gentlemen, perhaps in the desperate hope that it will encourage them to act as gentlemen.

There is nothing in the laws of the game that lays down how a referee should address players. But there are rules of good manners. That means referees decide for themselves, remembering that less is often more. The Bible's Book of Proverbs, while not having rugby solely in mind, affirms this: In the multitude of words, there shall not want sin.

It may just be obvious that the writer is a pre-management referee!

By Paul Dobson