Refereeing: the things they say
In rugby some referees are better than others. That’s true, too, of players – some are better than others. In fact it is true of all walks of life. It’s not just what they do but they way they do it that makes the difference between good, better and best.
Of course, what they do is basically important – the accuracy in applying the laws as written in the law book. How they do it has become more difficult in the era of the many refereeing words that player management seems to want.
It was easier in days of yore when there were fewer laws and simpler. You had knock-on, forward pass, offside and how the ball was won in the scrum and the lineout. You had a whistle to start play and stop play, and two gestures – the sideways arm for a scrum and the upright arm for a try or a penalty. Mind you, even with those limited means of communication, there were differences of expression – a whistle tone which told a blind man what the decision was going to be, the gestures that were an eloquent part of the referee’s body language.
There was speaking, but it happened only at the start of each half when the referee asked each captain if his team was ready. That was it. Speaking was regarded as a dangerous thing to do, opening the way to player participation – as in the “other” form of football.
Time has shown that the fear was not unfounded. We now have players not just asking for an explanation but debating the issue. We have players barking commands at referees, demanding penalties and even the removal of opponents from the field of play. You have heard the howls of “Holding”, “Offside” and “High tackle”.
The great South African captain, Fairy Heatlie, still the youngest forward ever to play for South Africa, a man who played international rugby for South Africa and Argentina, reckoned that in his day it was important to have a good debater in your team to enter into negotiations with match officials about law application.
That all changed 127 years ago. In that year the referee was made the sole judge of fact and law to put an end disputes which could go on for ages as higher authorities were consulted. There was even the case in 1884 when Scotland disputed and English try and when the try went to arbitration in Dublin before Lord Kingsburgh, who as the Lord Justice Clerk was the second most senior judge in Scotland, and Colonel Sir Francis Marindin who was the president of the Football Association as arbitrators. Their verdict was that it was indeed a try and only after their judgement in 1886 was a result of the match obtained!
What is the purpose of referee talk?
Sometimes it seems that the referee is really justifying himself, perhaps to the assessor, perhaps to the TV audience. That, surely is not the reason that he would say something. He surely would speak only to enhance the playing of the game, that is by enabling players to play “according to the laws of the game, its sporting spirit and fair play”, as the laws hope it will happen.
So talking aims at getting players to play according to the laws and in a sporting spirit. There is no other reason to supplement the basic signals of the game which have now in any case acquired nearly 60 supplements of their own in efforts to explain decisions to the world.
Talking is intended to give instructions and to give information/explanations.
The instructions are mostly to avoid negative play – get onside, stop holding onto the ball, stay on your feet, don’t use your hands. There also exhortations to play – play the ball, the ball is out, play on. Prevention being better than cure, there are also the quiet words when waiting to play – like let them come down before you play them; stay on the scrum till the ball is out.
Information includes the identification of phases of play in order that players may play with greater confidence in this highly complicated game – calls like Ruck, Tackle, Maul, Advantage, Advantage over.
This is mostly good, but it’s not just what you do but the way that you do it that’s important.
First of all and most of all – less is more. Watch the top referees and listen to their communication. It is succinct – brief, to the point and complete. It does not waste words at all. Jaco Peyper is a good one to follow.
Recently I watched a televised match in which the referee spoke more than the commentator. That’s no good and is self-defeating as it becomes white noise. It’s also no good when the talk degenerates into a chat or a debate.
There are other aspects of talk that could well be avoided.
Imemy talk. The referee is there to apply the laws. They are not his laws; they are rugby football’s laws. If he starts with I, I want, We agreed in the change room – any of those – he has got it wrong.
In the same breath, Thank you is probably wrong. When a referee tells a player to get onside and he does so, he is not doing the referee a favour.
There is also the mildly patronising praise that may well be out of place. The referee tells the player to roll away, the player rolls away and the referee praises him with a Well done, good work. It’s a bit like patting the dog for stopping barking.
Innuendo may also be a waste of time – Do that again and you’ll force me to go to my pocket. That’s actually quite sad!
Oh, and what do you call them? Why do we use Red and Gold when they call themselves Crusaders and Hurricanes? We had a situation where the Blues of New Zealand were playing the Bulls in Pretoria. The Bulls wore blue and the Blues wore white. The referee referred to blue and white. The Blues were confused at times.
It is now becoming the custom to address the captain by his first name. It could be demanding if this were applied to the other 44 players. Is it an invitation to familiarity?
Just a story to end, a story from simpler times.
Ralph Burmeister was a Test referee from 1949 to 1961. He was an exceptional referee who later became the chairman of the Western Province Referees’ Society. When talking started, I asked him if he ever spoke on the field.
His answer: “Once – and it was a grave mistake. I was retiring and it was my last provincial match – Western Province against Border. Border had a young hooker, Johnny Harrison, who was being a nuisance. At scrum I spoke on the field for the very first time in my career.
“I broke up the scrum and said to him: ‘Do you know anything about hooking, young man?’
“And he said to me: ‘A damn sight more than you know about refereeing.’ (Expletive changed)
“So I compounded my error by saying:” ‘I was refereeing before you were born, sonny.’
“And he said: ‘That’s your trouble, old man.'” (Expletive removed)
Ralph did not advocate talking on the field!