We’ve all seen it in international games during the Six Nations and World Cups: an aggrieved player gets in the referee’s face about a penalty he thinks he should have been awarded, or a player waves his arms in the air because he thinks (from 30 metres further away than the referee) that he’s seen an offence at the breakdown.
Only rarely does a Lion’s captain talk the referee round with sense and humility, and even more rarely do we see international players marched back 10 metres for being mouthy. When a national coach bemoans the imaginary ‘sixteenth man’, even when his team has won, live on national TV, it’s no surprise that every Wednesday afternoon or Saturday morning throughout the school season the cries of ‘knock-on sir’, ‘how many more offsides sir!’ or even (as in one of my recent U18 games) ‘that’s bull***t mate, that’s six or seven you’ve got wrong now’, echo around the school playing fields and not just from the 30 young people within immediate referee earshot, but from the side-lines too.
Dissent is explicitly provided for in the Laws of the Game: 9.28 couldn’t be clearer and gives no leeway for interpretation: ‘The referee’s decision is final’. So why is it more prevalent in our schools game, and how can we stop the rot?
It’s fundamentally a matter of mutual respect. Several times over the past couple of seasons I’ve been a spectator at an U15 or U16 game with only a few minutes to go before kick-off and still there’s been no sign of the referee: on one occasion I already had one boot on as ‘the reserve’ when the appointed referee finally showed up. No greeting, no briefing, just a quick toss of a coin and then off we go.
Hardly a surprise therefore that in these games there’s been no rapport between official and players, no buy-in to any decisions, and general dissatisfaction with the refereeing of the game, as well as probably a higher penalty count.
So treating school-age players with the same respect as adult players is a key part of ensuring they reciprocate. Yes, many referees prefer the higher grade or ‘more prestigious’ Saturday afternoon games, but these would never exist without school games on a Wednesday or club junior games on a Sunday. As well as schools rugby’s great potential to develop players – learning from a referee who isn’t their teacher/coach – there’s the benefit to referees’ education too – learning the age grade law variations, seeing the potential for the future, and of course refereeing some great quality ‘fast and furious’ rugby.
That’s not to say that the pre-match briefing should necessarily be the same as for an adult game: with school games my little chat is exactly that: little. When 30 snorting bellowing Under 16s are 10 minutes from kick-off, I tend to find the attention span shortens. But the very first thing that I outline to every player is a zero-tolerance approach to disputing, appealing or card waving. Cue lots of nodding and ‘yessir’-ing, followed in the first 10 minutes by lots of ‘helpful decision-making’ by the players, the inevitable reminder from me, then an even more inevitable penalty. The behaviour rarely persists beyond the first quarter, but a few impressions of a quacking duck whilst walking the offending team briskly back 10 metres are excellent reinforcers.
Be prepared however: as a trade-off, and of course if asked nicely, you need to be able to explain your decisions in detail and back your rationale. Rugby players are indeed more intelligent than they sometimes make out, and many 12 year olds half my height and a quarter my age still seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the laws and their application. Said 12-year olds have long memories too and will remember a poor referee long after the event.
Parents and supporters play a role in this too. No one wants to be ‘that’ parent laying into the ref at the business end of a crucial cup game, but we all know that the tension of the occasion can spill over the touchline to those watching. Referees can, but shouldn’t have to, block out some of the worst barracking, but there’s a responsibility there to educate little Jonny in accepting and working with all the decisions that the officials make. I can still remember an early game where after I dealt with a minor bust-up, a parent shouted ‘that’s great refereeing, sir’, and not in a sarcastic way. A little goes a long way sometimes.
Rugby in general remains one of the last bastions of respect for officials, and that’s due in no small part to many schools, players and referees putting a lot of this into practice. Long may that continue, and for those that have yet to buy into the concept, there’s always that quacking duck…
By Julian Edwards