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Refereeing: Where it all started

FEATURE: Acclaimed @rugby365com writer Paul Dobson takes us back in time to where ‘refereeing’ was first introduced to the game.


Having a referee and needing him as we do is another bit of proof of the existence of original sin, man’s propensity to get things wrong.

Dear Adam was full of innocence, till the snake came along. Rugby set out in similarly hopeful innocence till its snake reared its nasty head.

When first they played from village to village or from house to house, there were no rules to govern what happened and as a result, this “game” was subject to the riot act and banned by successive kings of England – 31 times in about 300 years. But then it moved onto school fields, most notably the school in the Warwick shire town of Rugby.

Then the game garnered rules and the possible infraction of those rules was decided by the captains of the day, who had been responsible for deciding which rules (later called laws) would apply for that particular match.

This proved not to be enough.

The games then acquired umpires – a word from the Old French nonper, not partial, which became in English noumper, numpire, and a numpire became an umpire as a narange became an orange.


If the captains could not agree, they could refer to the umpires. If they did not agree, they would then go off and state their case to a venerable gentleman in a wicker chair. They would refer the matter to him and so he became called the referee – the one referred to.

This all took time. The great Fairy Heatlie, captain of the first South African team to win a Test, the man who gave them the green jersey, the man who was the captain the first time South African won a series, a great man, stressed the need to select a good debater on a team to argue his team’s point in disputes of this nature.

It went even further. If players could not agree they would refer the matter to the organising body, but when it came to international matches there was no organising body to refer to.

When the Scots objected to a try which England claimed Richard Kindersley, they had no body to refer to and refused to play Perfidious Albion again.


Eventually, the try was tried by three Irish judges. This process led to the formation of the International Rugby Board (IRB) whose original task was the formation and management of the Laws of the Game.

That was in 1889. In 1892 they scrapped the umpires and praised the venerable man out of his wicker chair and moved him out onto the field, telling the rugby world that he was the sole judge of fact and law, thus ending the disputes, causing Heatlie to exclaim: “Thanks be for small mercies!”

Not only, it seems, did this give rugby somebody to make decisions but it also gave rugby a scapegoat.

Everybody playing or watching a game of rugby will take sides, i.e. want one team to beat the other. There more interest there is in the match, the greater the desire for a particular team to win. If that team gets beaten, the supporter has two options – admit that the other team was better or turn on the scapegoat – the referee, in the belief that it is impossible for a man to be impartial and not to use his power in favour of one team or another. It is the loser’s lament – We played against 16 men.

I used it when I was nine and my father gave me a lecture in sportsmanship. I have not used it since. Though he is 60 but just as childish, Eddie Jones used it the other day when Ben O’Keeffe refereed the team he was coaching. But, it seems, nobody gave him the salutary lecture my father gave me.

More’s the pity.

Tom Canterbury said: “The trouble with referees is that they just don’t care which side wins.”

Eddie Jones would not have said that, and he would not be alone, but in fact, Tom Canterbury is really close to the truth.

Thanks be for referees!

Imagine going back to the pre-referee days.

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