Isn't it sad how, in the wake of the Rugby World Cup, most of our post-tournament conversations have revolved around the officiating? Now let’s get clear, Wayne Barnes is an exceptional referee and by all accounts... a top man. And yeah sure… I was pacing around the lounge infuriated by the constant interaction the officials were having on the match (we sat in silence for a good 30 seconds after the Beauden Barratt try, waiting for intervention). But my frustration was not because of the decisions the officials made, but because they have been guided to make those decisions from the powers above them.
Back in the day I was an up-and-coming referee. I refereed in the days when red cards were reserved for the true "Dick Heads" who didn't quite grasp the spirit of rugby, with acts such as kicking, punching (yellow card if it was consensual), biting, or racial abuse (In 7 years I never issued a red card – could have been avoiding paperwork?). It was fun tripping around, as you could really impact on the spectacle. I would collaborate with coaches to learn from. But I generally ignored feedback from coaches as it was rarely helpful and more often a vent. Referees do the same today.
Rugby is a unique sport in that we actually need referees! Because of the complexities of the laws (refs will tell you they are ‘laws’ not ‘rules’), it is virtually impossible to play rugby without a ref. That was one of the reasons I enjoyed reffing rugby – you actually had a job to do! You can play rugby league, basketball, football, cricket, touch, hockey, volleyball, tennis, golf etc… without officials. That’s why when you go into a school at lunchtime, kids are playing a range of sports and will play league or touch… over rugby. We need refs.
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Now as someone who has been in both the referee and coaching camps, I feel I’m in a position to help coaches navigate relationships and concerns with referees and officials. The main point is… it’s pointless pointing the finger at refs. All through history, blaming the ref has never helped. Look back at 2007, which ended up being a turning point for All Blacks Rugby. Wayne Barnes again copped a lot of blame for that loss v France. And the All Blacks were labelled chokers and then eventually accepted that they probably were. The whole programme shifted to focus on mental skills, leadership and culture. The results were profound.
So what can we do as coaches?
We need to focus on what we can control. Always point the finger in. What did we do as coaches to prepare our team?
Don’t waste your time worrying about law interpretations and referee decisions. Work out how to navigate the laws (not rules) to your advantage and coach the players accordingly.
Don’t get bogged down on ‘one off’ decisions. If there is a theme then work it out and learn from it. There will always be ‘one offs,’ and referees will ignore your one off concerns.
If you’re frustrated about the standard of refereeing, it’s probably because you are coaching a certain level... if you get my drift. Fact - the better the level, the better the referee.
Again finally… it’s pointless pointing the fingers at officials.