Umpires to Referees - and back?
In rugby football, we claim we have referees and yet they are, perhaps, more correctly umpires while cricket has umpires who are, perhaps, more correctly referees.
Umpire comes from the French non pere – not partial. Non pere became numpire in English and a numpire became an umpire, the way a naranje became an orange. Strictly, an umpire is a man who watches and makes up his own mind about any decision to be made.
The referee is simply somebody referred to, the way an employee is somebody who is employed. He was referred to for a decision
Nowadays – or at least till very recently – the rugby referee has made up his own mind while the cricket umpire is a hybrid – sometimes making up his own mind but often referred to – sometimes loudly – by players wanting a decision. But the match referee in big cricket matches certainly is a referee. He is referred to to give a decision.
The existence of referees and umpires in games is the result of original sin, for in beginning there were no umpires or referees. The players got on with the game.
Changes came when the game, generically known as football, came to be introduced to schools, of which Rugby School was the most influential.
Originally the captains of each team (side) decided on right and wrong. Rugby School’s rules, as written in 1840 state: “Heads of sides, or two deputies appointed by them, are the sole arbiters of all disputes.”
It all sounds delightfully innocent, but the truth is that it did not work. A rudimentary knowledge of human nature would tell you that it would not work. What would be the next step if the two captains could not agree?
Enter the umpires. They were not neutrals but each one represented one of the teams playing in the match.
If the captains could not agree on the decision, the umpires had a chance to make their decision. Each umpire had a stick. To show their decision they either raised or lowered their stick. If both sticks were up or both were down, a happy decision could be made. But if one was up and one was down, there was an impasse.
The man to break the impasse was the referee. He was a revered gentleman sitting on the touch-line. Off they went to him and explained the incident. They referred to him and his decision was accepted.
In 1885, they hauled the referee out of his easy chair and thrust him onto the field, but the umpires stayed on the field with him, but not for long.
Fairy Heatlie, the great man of South Africa’s early international and Currie Cup rugby, announced: “Thanks be for small mercies! Umpires were scrapped after the 1892 season.”
The umpires were removed and the touch judges with flags in their sticks were born but with no powers beyond signalling touch and the result of a penalty kick at goal or a conversion attempt. The referee became the sole judge of fact and law, which ended disputes.
That is how things stayed till important touch judges became assistant referees with increased powers and communication gadgets. Then came sanctionary cards (cribbed from soccer) and then the TMO (cribbed from gridiron via Pretoria) and then the citing commissioner – all filled with good intentions of eliminating referee error or oversight and foul play.
Then recently, more and more the referee was encouraged to be a referee again, with players taking on the role of referring to referee, in fact often telling him what he should do, and they are often aided by team helpers on the touchline.
This sad change has been partly brought about by the referees themselves who have more and more become law-coaches for the referee under the guise of managing the game. The more referees talked, the more players talked.
You have heard the cries of “Holding” and “Offside”. You have seen the scrumhalf behind a tackle flinging out a dramatic arm to point out an opponent’s villainy. You have heard the captain advising the referee that he should card a player.
More and more the game has accepted the mores of soccer – from hugging scorers to disputing refereeing decisions. It’s not quite the raucousness of the cricket appeal but it could become so.
Many of the older generation would prefer a return to the good manners of the days of silent refereeing and undramatic acceptance of decisions.
It won’t happen, will it?