In the amateur era, rugby was known as a tough game where justice was frequently administered by the players on the field. A code of conduct existed whereby players happily fraternised with opponents after the game and laughed about respective misdemeanours. The referee was the sole arbiter of the game and, by and large, was treated with respect by the players. There were, of course, controversial decisions and some refs were on the receiving end of derision from crowds as a result. Back then, Roger Quittenden, David Burnett and Clive Norling all incurred the wrath of rugby followers, as Bryce Lawrence and Wayne Barnes have in recent times.
The modern game has been enhanced in many ways since the advent of professionalism. Television coverage and the funds paid by broadcasters have helped the globalisation of the game. There are now more people playing rugby in Sri Lanka than there are in Wales, though clearly the game is still in a development phase. The 2011 Rugby World Cup attracted gross commercial revenue of £142m, with a surplus of £90m and the IRB is committed to invest £150m across all 117 member unions by 2015.
The benefits of the professional age are clear, but the game has changed and has lost some of what made it special and different from other sports. With a greater emphasis on financial viability, the drive for success on the field is overtaking the desire to adhere to the basic principles of the game. In some respects, the amateur game has retained the rugby ethos of years gone by, but even there standards are slipping.
Referees are under the spotlight more than ever and mistakes are pounced on by the media and the rugby community. Captains are constantly in the ear of the referee as they attempt to influence his decisions. This is part of the captain’s job, but in many cases develops into an ongoing debate on interpretation of the laws of the game and becomes a tedious sideshow. In recent years, coaches have tried to influence referees through the media in the lead up to games. Even though they are bound by codes of conduct, coaches are frequently critical of match officials in the media after a game.
Equally concerning is the treatment received by amateur referees on a weekly basis. Banter between players and officials has always been part of rugby but when it is insulting and personal in nature it becomes abuse and is unacceptable – at any level.
The most common complaints about referees are of either bias or incompetence. Clearly there is no place in any sport for biased officials and it would be reasonable to suspect that few would survive long as referees if they favoured one side on an ongoing basis. Much is being done to improve the competence of match officials. However, where referees consistently fail to reach the required standard they should be demoted and the IRB is demonstrating leadership in this regard with the elite panel of referees.
Rugby is now a serious business, even at the amateur levels. Players are fitter, faster, and more knowledgeable about the game than ever before. Players and coaches have the same expectations of match officials and are often unwilling to tolerate anything below perfection from them. At the amateur level this is both unrealistic and unreasonable. For most referees rugby is a hobby and they are doing their best. If amateur referees get fed up with being abused they will take up another hobby and the game will lose experienced and committed volunteers.
Those who shout abuse at amateur referees should ask themselves if they could do a better job. If so, then buy a whistle, get fit and learn the laws of the game. If not, keep the vitriol to yourself, and be grateful that there are volunteers who are prepared to make the effort, so that we can play the game we love. Also remember, that the abuse you dish out is being digested by the youngsters, who line every rugby ground in the world – the next generation of players and referees. Otherwise there is a risk that rugby will become another soccer and what is beautiful about that game?