This post stems from a number of different areas – my personal involvement in refereeing; the different styles of refereeing that are seen at elite level; a late night debate with a friend over a beer; and a side point I made in a previous post, saying that referees should be agents of consistency, not agents of change. It is perhaps these diverse origins which mean that there is no firm conclusion to the question posed in the title. But it is a question worth asking, for referees, players and the game’s administrators.
It seems to me that the role of the referee is shaped by two competing concepts, each the antithesis of the other. The first is the role of independent adjudicator of the laws, a role which is largely reactive. This is an idea of refereeing which says that the laws should be configured to give a clear solution to any situation which occurs in the game, and that the referee therefore should be a) an expert in law and b) someone who is best able to observe the situation of the game, in order to feed this information into the mechanism of the laws and reach a decision.
The best example of this model is cricket umpiring. Cricket’s laws give an absolutely definite answer in all situations – the ball pitched in line with the stumps, missed the bat, hit the pads of the batsmen and would have gone on to hit the stumps; the batsmen is therefore out. Cricket umpires are chosen because of their exceptional powers of observation, which enable them to assess accurately what they have seen and so to reach a decision. There is, to the casual observer at least, very little management of players needed, certainly no ‘preventative umpiring’, and laws are clear on the outcome of any given situation. This role is at its heart reactive, as the umpire observes what has happened and, if required, makes a decision.
There is, unfortunately, no easy example of the other extreme of refereeing. Probably the best available is that of a boxing referee. These officials are not only there to prevent dirty play, but also to manage the contest with a view to creating an exciting, enjoyable bout. Although he is empowered by laws that forbid excessive clinching and the like, he still has to take a proactive stance in keeping the fighters honest, ensuring that they box in the spirit of the sport. His role is as much proactive and preventative as it is reactive to what he observes.
A good rugby referee must, of course, borrow from both concepts. On the one hand, he must ensure that the laws are upheld, reacting to foul or illegal play appropriately as a disinterested adjudicator. He must be an expert in law and a keen observer, and his ultimate recourse in moments of indecision is the law of the game.
On the other, however, he must also be active in his management of players and situations, and must empathise with the game. He should verbally encourage players to roll away, release the ball and keep their hands out of rucks. He should hesitate to penalise the player who crept offside on the blindside as the ball went open, and he should stick to ‘clear and obvious’ penalties (materiality). He should also bear in mind the level of the game, its spirit and the conditions in which it is played (contextuality). Not only that but, in the modern game, he is more and more being expected to enforce new laws which are obviously intended to influence the method of play, and so he must consider the spirit of the law as well as its wording. He is therefore neither completely reactive nor completely proactive, instead aiming for an empathetic and informed balance to his decisions and style.
None of this is especially controversial – in fact, to borrow from Basil Fawlty, it comes with a Nobel Prize for stating the bleeding obvious. The tricky bit, of course, is finding exactly where the ideal attitude lies. Indeed, given the level of nuance that we’re talking about here, it is probably helpful to think in terms of attitudes, or that sort of pseudo-instinct that guides an individual referee in moments of doubt or ambiguity. To put it another way, should a referee take to the field looking to be the grey man, the facilitator, who keeps a low profile until otherwise required? Or should he, as my friend argued, set out thinking ’my job is to create an attractive, exciting game of rugby’?
The exact balance an individual referee strikes between these two extremes can have a very real effect on his officiating. Take the following scenario: a red player goes to tackle the ball carrier and manages to put in a strong hit, driving the ball carrier (blue) backwards for several yards, behind his supporting attackers. Once they go to ground, the tackler gets to his feet and challenges for the ball, but without releasing the tackled player first. Blue forwards are forced to backtrack in order to enter the breakdown and so cannot quickly or effectively dislodge the red player, leaving their ball carrier hanging on to the ball and preventing its release.
In this situation, a very reactive referee would penalise the red tackler. He is required to release by law, and his penalty precedes that of the ball carrier in the ‘order of consideration’ (tackler(s), tackled player, arriving players). It is not relevant to the law that the tackle was a good one, and so the decision is clear. Not only that, the law forcing the tackler to release was designed to protect the side in possession – it is therefore within both the letter and the spirit of the law to penalise the red player.
The very empathetic referee, however, will most probably penalise blue. The tackler has acted positively and has dominated the contact, which is a key facet of the game. His failure to release the tackled player is probably not material, and even if it is, his tackle should be rewarded. The law requiring him to release may be in place to protect attackers, but it is more designed to prevent a normal tackle turning into an unshakeable jackal, rather than to protect a player who has been smashed in contact. Few fans or players will quibble about losing the ball if their player has been creamed.
To my mind, there simply isn’t an easy answer to what goes above. Some referees will look at the discussion and argue that it is too theoretical; that the scenario proposed is only ambiguous because I haven’t given enough detail. I would say from experience, however, that a huge part of refereeing is instinctive and that instinct is guided by underlying attitudes and approaches. Not only that, in a sport where there are frequently two or three penalties being committed at once, the referee cannot always effectively use the laws and recommended practice to reach his decision. The right approach is therefore something that each referee should spend time considering, both to inform his self-analysis and to make sure that he is secure in his own mind before a game begins.
For what it’s worth, my personal leaning is towards the grey man model. This doesn’t exclude all the management aspects of the game, such as communication with players or the use of materiality and contextuality. I recognise that these are essential. It does, however, discourage the referee from trying to take centre stage or over-emphasising his own importance. Any official who begins a game thinking that he must impose an agenda of fast rugby is in danger of making the wrong decision for the sake of aesthetics or, even worse, of becoming inconsistent. It is the desire for a spectacle which leads referees to turn a blind eye to obvious knock-ons in bad weather; to tell players how to play their rugby; and, worst of all, to referee in a way which evens up a one-sided game. It is never a bad thing to have empathy with the game and to reward positive endeavour but, ultimately, it is the responsibility of the laws and refereeing protocols to do this, not of the individual referee.
In the end, however, I doubt anyone is qualified to give a decisive answer to the question that this article explores. Much more productive will be the time that a good official spends considering the two different types of referee, allowing him to find a balance with which he feels comfortable, and which he decided on via informed and considered thinking. As with nearly all questions worth asking, the process of answering it is as constructive and worthwhile as the answer itself.