Professional rugby is impossible to referee?

It’s a bold statement, but last year’s Rugby World Cup quarters finals and the resulting furore over refereeing decisions has probably brought to a head what a lot of people have suspected for a while; professional rugby is impossible to referee.

The Rugby World Cup was supposed to bring together not just the best rugby players in the world but also the best referees in the world and yet ex-players, commentators and the general public seem to have spent most of the last month pouring scorn on the best officials in the game.

Here are a few examples:

Kenny Logan on Craig Joubert – “The referee has had a shocker. He ran down the tunnel like a scared rabbit because he made a ridiculous decision and, for me, he’s ruined a perfect game of rugby.”

Twitter – Man of Steel @hughie_87 – Nigel Owens is just as poor as the French

Barry John on Wayne Barnes – “Harsh Wayne Barnes decisions cost Wales”

These are isolated quotes directed at some of the games leading referees but they are generally indicative of the frustration of many rugby watchers when following a game of modern professional rugby. If we are all frustrated with all referees in nearly every rugby match there must be one conclusion – that the game is now impossible to referee at the very top level.

Here we look at 5 reasons why rugby has got itself in to this state.

Players are coached to cheat and push the boundaries at every opportunity

In the old amateur rugby days it was a given that the open side flanker would try and steal a yard or two here and there and maybe leave his hands on the ball when he shouldn’t. These sorts of infractions were normally dealt with by the players on the field (often by a stud on a hand).

Today we have all 30 players cheating, pushing the boundaries and trying to get one over the opposition – anything to give the team an advantage. In the world of professional rugby where people’s livelihoods can come down to the performance of the team, pushing the laws can be justified and even encouraged.

Rugby is so complex that with just one referee and two assistant referees it is impossible to spot all the infringements at any one time. Favourites include holding, pulling back, straying offside, blocking and that’s before we even look at the myriad of scrum offences that get unnoticed.

With the advent of the TMO most of the more serious offences get spotted but there are so many low level infringements that i) the officials can’t spot all of them and ii) they can have a material impact on the game.

Professional players are not going to self-police this by agreeing to not offend so referees have an impossible task.

There are hundreds of offences on a pitch during a game

In most sports an offence usually leads to a sanction, whether this is a free-kick, a penalty or a card of some colour. In rugby we have ended up in the position where something like only 5% of infringements are actually penalised. The actual figure could be even lower than this.

Part of this is due to the complexity of the game which means players are often not even aware what the laws are (see Greg Laidlaw asking the referee Craig Joubert to review the “knock forward” to the TMO in the Scotland Australia game).

It can also be explained by the continual change in the directives and areas that World Rugby decides should be focused on, the fact players are coached to cheat (see first heading) and that referees allow some offences to go unpunished (see later section on materiality) that are offences in the law book.

This issue is a particular problem at the ruck where players from both sides flaunt nearly every law in the book. The tackled player hangs on to the ball, the jackaling defender goes off his feet, we have players diving in to contact, not using their arms etc etc. It’s a mess.


Because there are some many offences the referees have to apply the “materiality” judgement, that is which of the numerous offences is most material to the flow of the game?

In a split second the referee has to firstly spot all the offences taking place, then he makes a judgement about the impact of each offence on the game and finally penalises the offence which has the biggest impact.

Is it any wonder that viewers of rugby find a lot of referees’ decisions baffling? As supporters we tend to only look at offences against our team and wonder why they haven’t been picked up by the officials. At the same ruck or maul opposing supporters are doing the same and are equally baffled. With referees deciding which offence to penalise it is not surprising that this is an area that rugby watchers find frustrating.

Replays in the ground

There is nothing that undermines referees and infuriates supporters more than the big screen in a ground showing the referee got a decision wrong! In most major stadiums replays of incidents are shown immediately after an incident so we can all judge real time whether the decision was right or not.

Premier League football knows this is a problem area for officials which is why their stadia are not allowed to show controversial decisions during the game.

In this Rugby World Cup we have had a couple of incidents where the TV producer has flashed up on the big screens incidents that the referee has got wrong. This brings in to question who has control over the TV pictures and the influence these images have on the game but they also undermine the referee, which makes his job a lot harder.

The TMO 

World Rugby has got itself stuck in a muddle. The use of the TMO has expanded from the grounding of the ball which it was originally used for, to foul play (the serious and the fairly trivial) and for reviewing several phases before a try grounding.

Rugby supporters used to accept referees made errors but the introduction of the TMO has given the false impression that rugby has become a sport where there are no officiating errors – because the TMO can step in and give the “correct” decision.

This pervasive use of the TMO has led to the situation where players and supporters expect the TMO to step in to correct any mistakes made by the officials; it isn’t now good enough to say “the referee made a genuine call and got it wrong”.

The incident at the end of the Scotland Australia game is a great example of this. Many rugby fans commented that the TMO should have been used because it was a big decision and rugby needs to get big decisions right. Fine but that penalty call was no bigger than other penalty calls and probably another 20+ key moments in the game that were crucial to the final outcome. Do we want the TMO looking at all of these incidents?

Referees are now damned if they consult the TMO all the time (“get on with the game, make a decision ref” we say, but also damned if they don’t consult the TMO (“why don’t you use the technology ref and get the decision right?”). The TMO has put referees in a no win situation.

Where do we go from here?

This was a list of the reasons why the job of refereeing at the top level has become an impossible task. In coming articles we will look at how we fix it, but for now we are stuck in a frustrating position where the referee and the decisions he makes are probably the primary deciding factor for a large percentage of games at the very top echelons of rugby.

We need to find a way to change this.

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5 thoughts on “Professional rugby is impossible to referee?

  1. Pingback: The difficulties of refereeing | If there's no ref…

  2. Pingback: Why Professional Rugby is Impossible to Referee | theblitzdefence

  3. Unfortunately for referees they get criticism from commentators for decisions that they make,they can see more of the game than the referee can and they can instant replays of the action. I hate these supporters that make comments on the referees decisions, i bet that if they watched the game with the sound off that they couldn’t make a decision. i myself like watching the game but can’t understand sum of the rules, the of the for instants kicking the ball to the other team, and when a try has been scored they restart the game in the same, why can’t they pass the ball to one of their own players and start an attack.I don’t know of any other sport that does this.


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