Referees to bite back?
July 20, 2012
Will referee Steve Walsh settle a few old scores via Twitter? © Getty Images
The International Rugby Board have revealed that from the start of the 2012-2013 northern hemisphere season referees will be permitted to openly criticise players, officials and fans. The sport's governing body has announced plans to actively encourage officials to verbally attack players and coaches to counter balance the often stinging criticism they receive.
"It's about having a level playing field," said John Fields of the IRB referees' panel. "Since rugby first began back in the Victorian era umpires, officials or referees have been subject to constant, and usually completely unfair, criticism. I was a top level referee for many years and it can be very tough to listen to a cacophony of whistles and jeers from players and spectators and be unable to respond at all. It's especially difficult when you know that you've made the right decision."
The IRB has issued all major media outlets, as well as all professional rugby organisations worldwide, with a DVD highlighting over 2,000 examples of technically perfect refereeing decisions being criticised not only by players during the match but also for days afterwards in the press.
"Since the game went professional in 1995 this kind of thing has gotten a lot worse," said Fields. "Rugby has become a little more like soccer in its sensationalism and public whinging and moaning by supposedly wronged parties. The respect for the referee, once a shining beacon at the heart of our great game's core, has eroded. So we've decided: 'sod it'. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. From now on we want our officials to criticise players and, where appropriate, mock them for their mistakes. The gloves are off. Now let's see how they like it when they are on the receiving end."
The announcement has caused concern amongst rugby traditionalists who fear the move may lead to the sport becoming crass and vulgar. But Fields thinks drastic times call for drastic measures.
"Look at Wales' recent Test series against Australia," continued Fields. "There were lots of noises made by certain camps within Wales, particularly Welsh fans online, that the narrow defeats in all three games were down to poor refereeing of the scrum. Or that the referees favoured the home side at the breakdown and so on. Indeed, during the series many in the Welsh team openly criticised and moaned at the officials on the field of play. In future we want referees to be able to respond in kind. Take Sam Warburton's awful pass to Rhys Priestland in the first Test which ruined a certain try-scoring attack for Wales. All the match official could do was signal for a knock on.
"In future we want the referee to blow his whistle and start chuckling loudly whilst pointing at the players involved in the screw up. We've even come up with hand signals for referees to use. So much like how referees signal for a knock on or penalty, we have designed a set of signals to mock players for a simple mistake. In the Warburton and Priestland incident I just mentioned it would simply involve the referee pointing with one hand at the player and covering his mouth with the other, as if he was trying to stifle a big laugh. We think this would make players think twice about condemning referees for their mistakes. He who casts the first stone, etc."
Alongside the proposed on-field reactions for referees, the IRB has also suggested that officials utilise social media to continue their attacks on players after the game has ended. "We want referees to fight fire with fire," said Fields. "Why stop complaining when the game ends? God knows the players and coaches don't."
The IRB has produced a series of mock Twitter posts to give examples of the kind of things referees could do on social media under the new regulations.
+ "Priestland cant catch for toffee…lol! #catchlikeagirl"
If the trial for the 2012-13 northern hemisphere season is a success, then the IRB plan to expand the programme to also include referees carrying a trombone with them at all times which they can plan in a comical manner when players drop easy try-scoring passes.
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