Why do we feel compelled to criticise referees in rugby?

Bronwyn Molony

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Referee George Clancy keeps the gap in the lineout during the Magners League rugby match between Llanelli Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors at Stradey Park, Llanelli. Photo credit: Meistr Jam
Referee George Clancy keeps the gap in the lineout during the Magners League rugby match between Llanelli Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors at Stradey Park, Llanelli. Photo credit: Meistr Jam

In the modern game, there can be so little between the teams that every decision by each person on the field can be picked over endlessly, and it goes without saying that this includes the referee. However, there is a line between disputing a decision and unduly criticising someone trying to do their job. In the recent 6 Nations tournament, there have been numerous incidents poured over and criticised.

Take the England-Wales game: the moment came in the 22nd minute of the game, and it was what everyone was talking about afterwards. Gareth Anscombe and Anthony Watson raced towards the ball in a bid to score and prevent the score, respectively. Both got a hand to the ball but it was disputed as to whose hand got there first. The referee, Jerome Garces, referred the decision to the TMO, who ruled that Watson got to the ball first, although the replays showed that Anscombe got a hand on the ball before Watson did.

It was the moment that left everyone talking afterwards, to the extent that the World Rugby Head of Referees publicly said that the referee and the TMO made the wrong decision. He also personally rang Gatland to apologise for the mistake. Comparisons were made with Craig Joubert’s decision in the 2015 World Cup in the match between Australia and Scotland that meant that Australia went through to the semi-finals instead of Scotland by one point. That decision came in the dying minutes of the match, which makes it completely different to Garces’ decision.

The World Cup is a completely different beast in terms of pressure and prestige: it’s the competition. Joubert’s decision came at a time in the match when Scotland had no hope of recovering whereas Wales had another 58 minutes in which they failed to get enough points. There is an argument that it would have given them a psychological advantage at that point in the game, but I don’t entirely buy into that. Yes, it would have been helpful, but they still had three-quarters of the game in front of them.

Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse contest a line out at the 2013 Heineken Cup Final. Photo credit: week ay (Flickr).
Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse contest a line out at the 2013 Heineken Cup Final. Photo credit: deek ay (Flickr).

We saw it again on the BBC after England lost to Scotland and France (and also in the Wales-Italy match, where there was indecision over the second yellow card on Wales’ part). It was an unprecedented turn of events that showed Eddie Jones’ men cannot think on their feet, and the commentators are unused to having to talk about an English defeat, let alone back to back defeats. After 24 wins from 27 games, it’s not something the players or the pundits are used to. But it’s not an excuse to take a cheap pop at the referee – if Carlsberg did referees, then Nigel Owens would be it (I’ll leave Jaco Peyper for another day…).

So why does the referee come in for such criticism? It’s easy to sit at home and complain about what should or shouldn’t be done. Referees are only human, at the end of the day, and humans make mistakes. Fact. If we wanted perfect accuracy, we’d have robots referee the game instead. Even then, people would have to code the robots, and guess what? People program biases into their code! So we still can’t win.

There is a fair point to be made the referee shouldn’t accept a decision from the TMO without looking at the footage themselves. Nigel Owens is frequently heard saying “this is what I see” when talking to a TMO after referring a decision. Taking ownership of the final decision is important.
World Rugby, both in the England-Wales game and the World Cup game, publicly shaming the referee for making the wrong decision hasn’t made the situation better. A decision can’t be overturned retrospectively, so why bother making public statements about it?

Hannah Tyrell, an international rugby player for the women’s Irish rugby team spoke to The Circular on the issue. She said that due to the nature of the laws, the referee is an integral part of the game. “It can be quite frustrating when they get a call wrong and it might change the game or change any momentum you have”. She also said it can be so frustrating for a team when the likes of World Rugby publicly correct a decision. “But in sport, there’s never going to be a perfect game, there’s always going to be a mistake, unfortunately, it’s the referee the odd time.” It can be difficult “but you can’t dwell on the past, you just have to look to the next game and move on”.

We all accept the need or a referee in the games we play, and we all know how important it is for them to be impartial. It’s not acceptable to pressure a referee on the pitch, so why do we seem to think it’s acceptable off the pitch? In the end, I’d say the referees pay as much attention to the needless criticism as they do a piece of hay in a haystack. It’s pointless, it’s needless and it’s not getting us anywhere. Let’s just enjoy the game.

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Bronwyn Molony

Bronwyn Molony is a student journalist in Griffith College. Bronwyn has a BA in Music Production and is currently working towards a Masters in Journalism and Media Communications.