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Freek Burger's handy hints for referees

Someone once said: “Experience is that marvellous thing that enables you to recognise a mistake when you make it again”.


Experience can be a good teacher, but it’s not always the best teacher.

Experience is a hard teacher because it gives the test first, and the lesson afterwards.

Vernon Saunders Law

Instead of learning by trial and error, why not learn from the experts? By applying the hints seasoned referees provide, you can become a proficient referee in the shortest possible time.

This booklet, Learning from Experience, is targeted mainly at beginner and inexperienced referees. However, for more experienced referees the hints can serve as a checklist.

The following hints are not laws and you may not agree with all of them.

They are merely suggestions.

The intention of the authors is not to prescribe what you should do. Instead, you are encouraged to consider the tips and apply them to suit your personality and preferred refereeing style.

Enjoy your refereeing adventure.


Getting Ready

1 Contact the school or club to confirm the location of the field if you are not familiar with it. Do not leave this small but important matter until the morning of the match. Also, confirm the kick-off time and the colour of the team jerseys so that you don’t run onto the field wearing the same colours as the home team! It’s a good idea to pack an extra jersey, especially when officiating at more than one match.

2 Arrive at the field with a positive attitude. Be ready to enjoy the challenge of testing your management skills under pressure. Remind yourself of your purpose as a referee. Ideally, it should be to contribute to the teams’ enjoyment of the game.

You can succeed in this if you…
* are concerned about the safety of players – preventing and stopping all forms of dangerous play.
* are fair, impartial and consistent.
* know the laws and apply them correctly.

3 Arrive early. It’s difficult to settle down and focus when you arrive late, and feel flustered and agitated. Arriving early gives you an opportunity to familiarise yourself with the field (the size of the in-goal area, the condition of the field after heavy rains, etc.). You should be prepared to make an informed decision if there are objections to the condition of the field before the match.


4 It is a good idea to report on arrival to the local organiser or coach. Apart from getting to know others involved in rugby, it also puts them at ease knowing that the referee has arrived.

5 If you are refereeing an evening match, make sure that you know what the local ruling is about the lights going out before or during a match.

6 Look and act like a referee. A neat appearance is important. This not only boosts your confidence, it is also good for building respect and trust for you as an official. This also applies when refereeing younger players and lower teams. The match may not be very important for you as it is for the players (and their parents!).

7 Pack an extra whistle in your kit bag. Before the start of the match, check that the whistle works properly. A malfunctioning whistle is not only a source of embarrassment but it will also disrupt your concentration. Pack your kit bag yourself and develop a packing order routine. This should decrease the possibility of leaving something at home.

8 Include a pencil and a blank card in your kit bag to write down the score during the match. This should rule out embarrassment and confusion at the end of the match if there is disagreement about the score. It is, after all, the responsibility of the referee to keep score.

The Toss

9 It is often difficult to get teams out of their changing room. Try to have the toss completed as early as possible. However, this still does not guarantee that the teams will run onto the field on time. Some teams deliberately delay their entrance in a misguided attempt to unsettle the opposition. In such cases, you can consider letting the opposition run onto the field and wait for their opponents there. This will clearly indicate to everyone present who’s at fault for a delayed kick-off.

10 Apart from the clothes and boot inspection before the match, it is the task of the referee to organise the toss by providing one of the captains with a coin. Ask the other captain to “call” heads or tails before the coin is tossed. It can obviously cause problems if the captain makes his call after the coin has landed on the ground!

11 Confirm the choices verbally immediately after the toss. This should prevent a team taking up position on the “wrong” side of the field. If this does happen, the referee can be confident and firm about the teams taking up their correct positions.

12 Make a special effort to identify the two captains by taking note of their playing positions and jersey numbers. This will assist you when addressing the captains (asking them if they’re ready) at the kick-off and during other stages of the match.


13 Remind yourself that the spectators did not come to see you. Try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Don’t wait until all the players are on the field before making your grand entrance. In order to blend in you could run onto the field with the players.

14 Check that the touch judges or assistant referees are in place before the kick-off.

15 Check that there are only 15 players per team on the field.

16 Set up your watch before the kick-off. Ask the touch judges or assistant referees to also keep a check on the time in case something goes wrong with your watch.

17 Make sure that you know what players behind your back are doing. Have a quick glance behind you before commencing your run-up at the kick-off.

18 Be careful of beginning your run-up too early at the kick-off. If you are in a hurry to get to the spot where the ball lands, you may get into its path if it is kicked to the “wrong” side of the field.

* (Continue below ...)

Body Language and Focus

19 Despite the desirability of being unobtrusive, you should behave decisively. Your signals should be sharp, firm and clear without being overbearing.
Avoid repeating a signal unnecessarily because it could create the impression that you need to justify your decision or have self-doubts. One signal per incident is usually enough.

20 Look sharp and enthusiastic, but remain calm. Look as though you are enjoying the game. Beware of creating the impression that you are bored or disinterested. Always be up with the game regardless of how slow or boring the match is.

21 Always be aware of what is happening on the field but avoid making it your primary aim to be continuously on the lookout for mistakes and infringements.
Although it is unnecessary to always look players in the eye, it is a bad habit to look at the ground. Always focus your attention by looking at something specific. Your body language is also important. It should show that you are attentive and enthusiastic. For example, do not stand with your hands on your hips.


22 The preferred order of communication is:
1. Whistle
2. Signals
3. Talking
Use the whistle firmly and confidently. Avoid blowing tunes. In most cases one sharp blow is ample.

23 Blow your whistle in such a way as to differentiate between ordinary mistakes (e.g., a knock-on or forward pass) and serious offences (e.g., foul play). For example, in a case of a late tackle a longer, sharper and louder blast on the whistle is called for.

24 Avoid running or standing with the whistle in your mouth when you’re not using it. Apart from the danger of losing some teeth if you collide with a player, you will also tend to blow too quickly for a mistake. This could hamper your application of the advantage law.

25 There are occasions in a match when you need to blow your whistle immediately. Such situations could vary from mundane mistakes to the dangerous collapse of a scrum. For example: advantage is unlikely to follow after a forward pass. In such a case there is no need to delay blowing your whistle. It does not foster confidence if you hesitate in such situations or wait until the spectators react in some way (e.g., by calling out “forward Mr Ref!”).

26 It does not make sense to delay blowing your whistle because you’re waiting for advantage when the attacking team infringes while the opposing team is desperately defending their goal line. Blow your whistle immediately in such a situation.

27 Your signals should clearly differentiate between a free kick and a penalty kick so that players can immediately recognise your decision. It goes without saying that you should know the laws very well so that you can act with confidence and consistency.

28 It is good to communicate with the players but avoid the habit of explaining your decision if there is no need or request for such an explanation. This applies especially to senior players.

29 Avoid touching players.

30 Always refrain from using bad language. Using strong language may make you feel macho, but you risk losing the respect of players. This also applies to the way you speak in the clubhouse or when you give a talk at a school or club.

31 Avoid addressing players by their names. Referees are expected to be neutral. Referring to players by their playing positions or numbers affirms your neutrality. Also refer to the teams by the colour of their jerseys, for example “Blue, eight, is off-side”.

32 Don’t let the remarks of spectators intimidate you into making a decision. Remain honest at all times and firmly stick to your convictions and interpretation of the situation.

33 Refrain from talking to, or worse, arguing with spectators. You’re unlikely to win such a confrontation. Although you cannot stop spectators disagreeing with your decisions, an abusive spirit on the touch-line often carries over onto the field. In exceptional cases it may leave you with no option but to call off the game.

34 In extreme cases spectators may get onto the field and physically affect play. In such cases politely ask the guilty spectator(s) to allow the players to play unhindered (decide beforehand what you would say in such circumstances). If their unacceptable behaviour persists after one or two such requests, stop the game, and ask the local organiser or coaches for assistance. Call the game off if the unruly behaviour persists. Remember to submit a written report as soon as possible to your union.

35 If a player infringes but is not penalised because the opposing team gained advantage after the incident, the guilty player should be made aware of this. As referee you should tell him/her in a tactful and unobtrusive way that you saw the infringement, that he/she should not do it again.


36 If you’re in a situation where you need to turn your back towards some players, it is preferable to turn your back on the defenders rather than the attackers.

37 Be careful not to run too far ahead of play. This is common among unfit referees. However, it is a good habit to run just slightly ahead of the ball carrier. It is easier when you’re in this position to judge a forward pass.

38 While waiting for the possibility of advantage after an infringement, you should continue moving with the play. If advantage does not follow you can return to the original spot where the mistake or infringement occurred. It’s not a problem if it is not exactly the right spot. However, it is a problem if the attackers score a try and you’re not in a position to award it because you remained at the spot where the infringement occurred. Your assistant referees can help you to determine the correct spot.

39 Move briskly and as soon as possible from set plays such as scrums in order to get into a good position. It also helps you to get out of the way of players leaving the scrum.

40 While moving away from situations such as a scrum, ruck, maul or tackle, it is a good practice to glance back at the specific situation. Foul play often starts here.

41 Get to the break-down point as quickly as possible. When you reach it, and you’re in a good position, you can become stationary.

42 Move briskly to the half-way spot or 22-metre-line for a kick-off or drop-out. However, always keep the players in your field of vision. This applies especially to the situation where a player touched the ball down behind his own goal-line. He may opt for a quick drop-out or he may use a different ball or is obstructed by an opponent. You must remain vigilant and alert-even when the ball is not in play.

43 If a player is injured, move briskly towards him and give the situation your complete attention. It creates a bad impression if a referee casually saunters up to an injured player.


44 Be careful not to blow your whistle too quickly when the ball is kicked high towards the touch line. It can cause embarrassment and confusion when the referee has prematurely blown his whistle for a line-out and the ball then lands in the field of play! This is especially likely to happen in windy conditions.

45 Move quickly towards the touch-line when a bunch of players move over the line (often amongst spectators). This is a common situation for the start of foul play.

46 Be strict with (penalise) players who throw the ball away or hold onto it ball in order to prevent the team entitled to throw in the ball, from doing so quickly.

47 Move briskly to the touch-line for the line-out and wait there for the players to take up their positions. This affirms your presence without being overbearing. After this you can take up your position for the line-out to commence.

48 It is not necessary to make a mark with your boot on the touch-line to indicate the place for a line-out. Rather focus your attention on something else more important. Apart from running the risk of angering the groundsman for damaging the field, it does not really matter if the throw-in takes place a few centimetres to the left or right. If you insist on making a mark, it is better to do so on the five-meter line where the first player from each team takes up position.

49 Ensure that the player throwing in the ball stands under the touch judge’s flag.

50 Vary your position at line-outs. However, you must have a definite purpose in mind when selecting a position.

51 Be on the lookout for what the player in possession of the ball may do. He may opt for a quick throw-in. You should be prepared for such an event.

52 Insist that the opposing teams in the line-out form up at least 1 metre from each other. Penalise them after one or two requests from you to adhere to this law. It is important to insist on discipline and consistency at the line-out early in the match. Hopefully, such an approach should instil discipline for the rest of the match.

53 Be strict with (penalise) players moving through the line-out before it has ended.

54 Be strict with (penalise) players who illegally push or pull their opponents in the line-out. Be on the lookout for players who illegally play the ball with the outside arm while obstructing an opponent with the inside arm.

55 Just before the ball is thrown in at the line-out, glance at the players in the back-line to check that they are at least 10 metres away.


56 Quickly take up a position on the side from which the ball is to be thrown in at the scrum. This eliminates the need to walk between the two front rows or around the scrum to get into the right position. You should only take up position at the scrum on the “wrong” side if you’re are looking for something specific, such as illegal scrumming in the front row.

57 Avoid kneeling down at the mouth of the scrum. The problem with kneeling is that you cannot easily see what the flankers on the other side and the backline players are doing.

58 Be strict with (penalise) front rows that charge into each other at the scrum. You should sort this out as soon as it occurs-usually at the first or second scrum. It is important to stamp your authority on the match as early as possible.

59 Be strict with (penalise) the defending scrumhalf when interfering (e.g., pushing) the opposing scrumhalf without the ball.

60 Ensure that the front rows push in a forward direction.

61 Move back a little from the scrum as soon as the ball is hooked. This gives you a wider perspective of the game.

Ruck and Maul

62 Be careful not to stand too close to the ruck or maul. Remember, you should also know what the back-line players are doing.

63 Move around the ruck or maul in order to get a better perspective of the ball or the back-line players.

64 Although you should avoid being boxed in on the touch-line, it is a good habit to take up an initial position on the blindside of a ruck or maul. It gets you out of the way of players joining and it also gives you a better view of the players who are not part of the ruck or maul.

65 Be strict with (penalise) players who join the ruck illegally.

66 Be strict with (penalise) players who are not properly bound to the ruck or maul with the hand and whole arm.

67 Blow your whistle immediately after you decide that the ball is not going to emerge soon from a ruck. This should prevent foul play such as tramping, pushing, pulling, etc.

Fair Catch

68 Although it’s the referee’s duty to look after the safety of players, you should be careful of blowing your whistle prematurely in the case of a fair catch. Wait until the catcher has actually caught the ball before blowing. It is embarrassing if a referee blows for a fair catch only to see the player dropping the ball or knocking it on. However, blow your whistle immediately once the player has made a clean catch from a direct kick from the opponents.

69 Get to the mark of the fair catch as quickly as possible, indicate the mark, and then quickly move a metre or two to away to allow the catcher to take the free kick. Do not stand on the mark.

Free Kick and Penalty Kick

70 Be strict with (penalise) players holding onto the ball or throwing it away in order to prevent the kicking team from taking a quick kick after a free kick or penalty kick has been awarded.

71 Indicate the mark for a free kick or penalty kick and then quickly move away so that the kicker can kick the ball. It is not necessary to make an actual physical mark in the ground to indicate where the kick must be taken.

72 Remember, the kicker has a full minute to take his kick from the time the kicking tee arrives.

73 Stand on the field side of the kicker if he is going to kick the ball towards the touch-line. However, make sure that you do not get into his way if he decides to do otherwise (e.g., taking a quick tap kick and run with the ball).

74 In the case of a penalty kick ask the kicker if he intends to kick for goal. If the answer is yes, indicate to the touch judges with the appropriate signal. Do not blow your whistle when doing so.

75 If possible, take up a position that does not hinder the kicker; for example, make sure that your shadow does not fall across the path of his run-up.

76 Make sure that the players of the non-kicking team are at least 10 metres away from the mark or behind their goal-line.

77 At a free kick make sure that the players of the non-kicking team stand still with their hands at their sides and that they don’t charge until the kicker has started his run-up. In the case of a penalty kick the opposing players may not move until the ball has been kicked.

78 Make sure that the kicker actually kicks the ball and does not merely touch it with his foot. The ball must move a visible distance from his hand if he is holding it.

79 Follow the ball at a penalty kick in order to be at the play if the ball bounces off the goal post or crossbar.

Goal Kick

80 Stay alert and focused at a goal kick. This applies to all matches but especially to games where touch judges are not qualified officials. Remember, they are there only to assist you. Don’t rely solely on their judgement. As referee you’ll have to make the final decision.


81 Get to the play quickly when a player is brought to the ground.

82 Be strict with (penalise) players who prevent the ball from being played at a tackle. The sequence of managing a tackle situation is:
1. The tackler (preventing the ball from being played).
2. The ball carrier (holding onto the ball)
3. Other players (diving or falling on the ball or ball carrier).

83 Be strict with (penalise) players who are not on their feet when trying to play the ball on the ground.


84 Move quickly into the in-goal area when play moves over the goal-line. In this situation, it is good to move slightly ahead of play before the players actually cross the goal-line.

85 Get near to the play quickly at the corner post. Move as near as possible to the ball.

86 If assistant referees are appointed to help you, make use of their services by getting their confirmation before awarding a try.

87 After awarding a try move away quickly. By remaining on the spot you expose yourself to possible objections or criticism from the defending team. “Make the call and walk away tough.”

Foul Play

88 Regularly look back during play or breaks in play.

89 Avoid turning your back on players after blowing your whistle. You must at all times be aware of what is happening on the field.

90 When the ball is kicked high into the air avoid focusing all your attention on the ball. You should also keep your eyes on the players. This also applies at the kick-off or drop-out.

91 Be strict (penalise) early, late and high tackles and other forms of dangerous play. Stamp it out as early in the match as possible. It is better to err by being too strict than making the mistake of allowing foul play.

92 Be strict (penalise) a player diving onto an opponent who has scored a try or made a touch down. Regrettably this type of foul play is often overlooked.

93 Blow your whistle immediately to protect a vulnerable player fielding a high kick while an offside opponent is charging towards him.

94 The waiting period for advantage after foul play should be shorter than for other infringements.

95 When penalising a player for foul play you must give him a warning. It is best to call the player and captain aside when you speak to him. This may sound pedantic but it conveys the message that you view foul play seriously.

After the Match

96 After blowing the final whistle, walk off the field immediately. You can avoid becoming the target of abuse from emotional players or spectators by not lingering unnecessarily on the field.

97 Thank the touch judges, especially if they’re schoolboys, teachers or coaches.

98 Avoid the temptation of defending your decisions or arguing with players, coaches or spectators on the field or in the tunnel. Allow them to talk to you after you’ve had a shower and changed. This helps when dealing with individuals who are overly emotional-usually after a disappointing defeat.
Remind yourself that spectators and coaches are likely to be irrational and highly emotional after matches. As the referee you should not fall into the same trap. Although it may be difficult, remain calm, courteous and professional at all times.

99 If there is an assessor at your game listen attentively to his comment. Avoid interrupting and arguing about your decisions. Thank him for his time and advice.

100 Join the players, coaches and officials at the after-match get-together. Always behave in a professional manner on such occasions. Make a firm decision to be an ambassador for refereeing and rugby.

101 Look critically at the strengths and weaknesses of other referees, but refrain from criticising them in public. You will not get up the refereeing ladder any faster by badmouthing your colleagues. Also avoid criticising players, teams and coaches.

Do not give advice unless they ask for it or when you are appointed to assess a junior referee. When assessing referees emphasise the positive things they did in the match before pointing out areas where they can improve.


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