rugby365 recentrly tried to answer the question of how many things a referee has to watch in a match, and it makes for interesting reading. In the example match a count was taken of what takes the referee’s attention during 80 minutes and it was a total of 514 situations that needed judgement.
The statistics and thoughts come from one match – London Wasps vs Newcastle Falcons in England’s Premiership. It was played on 3 January 2010 – which means it is not a fossil, nor was it played in the worst conditions, nor was it just a bit of rough-and-tumble.
On the field were 30 professional players and from time to time fresh ones came on. Watching them play was a referee who had two assistants on the sideline. The referee was, by law, the sole judge of fact and law and decisions were ultimately his responsibility.
Let’s look at the match statistics, mindful that not all actions on the field are equal. Tackles, rucks, mauls and line-outs are more complicated than most passes, but all passes make their demands on a referee.
Spectators can watch and not watch as they feel like it, sip a beer, chat, shout, fall asleep. Players, too have downtime, especially if they are on the extremities. But the referee has to watch every second of the 80 minutes. The referee is the one player on the field involved in every activity.
In this match a count was taken of what takes the referee’s attention during 80 minutes.
Scrums (including resets): 31
Free kicks: 4
Consulting assistants: 0
Consulting TMO: 1
Whistling start and end of half: 4
514 in 80 minutes. That’s over six a minute. That’s one every 9 seconds or so. That’s hectic. And we have not included the referee’s supervision of medical men on the field and of substitutions/replacements, which as we know from fake blood and 16-man teams need supervision.
Obviously there are aggravating circumstances. The 30 players involved in such a match are intense and intensely involved in physical contact. They are confined to a field and mostly are intensely active in confined spaces on the field. That makes decisions more difficult. The players are not static and are at the same level as the referee, which means his view can be blocked unless he is clever in his positioning. It is often a game played at great speed. Nor are there only players involved. There are coaches and other officials and there is a crowd, everyone a partisan.
Some situations are easier to observe than others. A pass from one player to a team-mate after a long kick is relatively easy but still needs close observation. The ball may not be cleanly caught. It may be knocked backwards or sidewards or forward or be knocked back and bounce forward. It needs careful observation. Miss one of those and the referee is in trouble.
Then there are the complex situations, above all the tackle.
The tackle is a dynamic area of conflict. This is where players fight with greatest ferocity. And it’s not just what they do when they are there but also how they get there. If it becomes a ruck it is more complicated in what players are allowed to do and offside lines also come into play.
The scrum is another area of conflict – 16 players with laws of binding and angles and all sorts of things. In this match it was a tough area as the Falcons’ pack was considerably stronger than the Wasps’.
Line-outs are not as simple as they look – big and determined players with the possibility of offside, obstruction, aerial infringement and the straightness of the throw.
Not even a kick is always simple. Was nit taken back into the 22, was it out on the fill from outside the 22, where are the kicker’s team mates (offside/onside) – that sort of thing.
It is not an easy game to referee.
It is a complex game and to see fair play is a little man armed with a whistle but backed by the ethos of the game – and that ethos is one of sportsmanship.
Destroy the ethos of rugby and you destroy rugby. Attacks on referees erode the ethos of the game.
The best you hear in favour referees is that they have a thankless task or serve the game. Neither is true. There enormous pleasure in refereeing, a part of the sport of rugby football. Referees get great rewards from refereeing.
But they are human, and being human they make mistakes. The same is true of players, coaches, selectors, administrators, politicians, priests. blacksmiths, mothers, fathers, children – every single human being.