In the coverage of rugby we often talk about the players, the clubs, the tournaments, the coaches and even the people who are involved with the performance aspects, but with the exception of a few referees (like Nigel Owens) there isn’t must coverage of the referees. Let us be honest without the referee we don’t have much of a game. The referee is a vital component of the actual game so we felt they also needed to be included in our rugby website and discussion.
Now we started work on this piece months ago, but scheduling has made it difficult for us to get a hold of everyone. So the fact that there are a ton of referees left off, or that referee society presidents weren’t included in this piece doesn’t mean anything other then when we the writers and the refs have fulltime jobs and lives it can become difficult to make time for interviews. We do plan to still get with both the Northern California Rugby Referee Society (NCRRS) president Paul Bretz, and the Phil Klevorick of the Southern California Rugby Referee Society (SCRRS) some time soon and get their official perspectives.
In the mean time we did chat with some referees and felt that they can give players some great tips by getting to know some of the referees and also how to interact or not interact with the referees.
For those you’ve been around the game of rugby you understand it is our respect for the game and how we conduct ourselves that sets us apart from other sports. You’ve seen tons of videos on social media that compare how we treat the referee with respect vs. those in soccer, football or basketball. Best example is the footage of Nigel Owens’s great quote (and he has a number of them) of him telling a player that kept shouting and challenging calls “…This is not soccer”!
We asked four different referees questions that would allow us to understand them and to also help the players. It is important for new and young players to understand that this is not soccer and there is a way we play our game. It’s always played with respect!
We discussed with the refs/sir that it is an established protocol that players should not be questioning the referees, but how did they feel if a Captain or a coach is asking for a clarification on what a call was or why something was called a certain way?
NCRRS Referee James Hinkin provided us with this response. “Well I want to start out by noting that using “Sir” as a noun rather than an honorific, as far as I can tell, is a Midwestern tradition. I rarely get referred to as “the Sir” unless it’s by a transplant. Make of that what you will” says Hinkin. “As for me personally” Hinkin goes on to say “and while every ref is different this is what is taught by NCRRS: you can speak to a captain and offer clarification if there is time. If a team wants to go quick at a penalty don’t stop the game for a chat with the offending team’s captain. There are plenty of natural breaks in the match that can provide that opportunity. Of course there is the risk of waiting too long and the actual incident gets disconnected from the present situation, but I find that to be rare”.
Hinkin also explains “When offering a clarification I also try to be concise. This isn’t a 2 way conversation- it’s the referee clarifying a decision. If a team is committing enough penalties to get into card trouble then you talk to the captain to give a warning, then possibly a longer explanation may be needed to cover several incidents. But even then, brevity is your friend”.
Hinkin’s answer for the coach is “before the match I will approach him and ask who is the captain is, but once that is done I never talk to the coach until after the match. After the match I will happily chat away and answer questions but never during”. Hinkin explains “The coach is not involved in a match once he decides the team sheet with the exception of substitutions. In fact, a coach is not mentioned in the Law Book at all and has no official status. The ref should deal with the captain and captain only. This is not football where you have a myriad of coaches and coordinators making decisions every play. This is rugby, where players make their own decision and execute them! My old coach with the San Jose Seahawks, Kevin Meek use to say that his job was finished once we left the practice field on Thursday. He trained us and gave us the game plan, and it was on us to execute”.
Jeff Jury a long time referee who also does a lot of work with youth rugby has a similar approach. Jury told us that the game is about the players and the referee. The coaches should not be chatting or “yelling” at the ref. “I personally will talk to the youth/high school captains if there is an need and even gather the players and say this is about you guys and I’m here to make sure its played according to the rules, no one else is involved. I address as much with them as I can”.
Jury noted that he is much more flexible with youth/high school players as they are often new to the game and have to be made aware that this is not football, soccer or any other game where they can challenge the rules or the ref. He continued, “You have to have a level of self awareness too. While we need to teach the game and the rules to the kids, it can’t also be all about you. It can’t be a power trip”.
Pete Smith, another long-time referee provided this very simple advice how players should have interactions with the ref, “Don’t”! Smith said its best for players to leave it to their captain. “If you can’t stop yourself, ask for clarification on the call but never make comments of a personal nature. Andre Watson said, ‘said you can question my ability, but don’t question my integrity’ and that is true for most refs”.
Funny thing was that Hinkin’s responses to the question on interacting with the ref was the exact same thing as Smith’s response. Don’t! Hinkin clarified “Its not a assertion of power, its merely for sanity and clarification. The team has a captain to work with the ref….this is an issue often with new referees-if you start letting everyone talk to you then not only does the game grind to a halt as you stop and chat with each player, you can get overwhelmed with players trying to call the game for you”.
Hinkin said even if the player is right and is shouting ‘he’s off sides’ and you call it then it looks like the players are calling the game and not the referee. “Also remember that we aren’t stupid. Standing next to the referee and saying loudly to a teammate that ‘the ref isn’t calling hands in the ruck today’ is something that I will penalize player for, and them trying to say it was directed towards a teammate doesn’t fly”.
Jury shared that his biggest issue isn’t with young players trying to talk to him, but it is often parents who he points out have not played the games themselves and so their questions and comments are often unsupported by the laws of the game or understanding of the game. “They think because they’ve watched their kids play they know the game, and they don’t. The law book is fairly large and there is a lot of info in there, I doubt they’ve become familiar with it all”.
There is an exception to this Hinkin points out. “If the referee initiates it (conversation) or if it’s just friendly banter then its different. I will often talk to the front row at scrums to remind them I am watching them (especially near the try zone). And as a player I would make bets with the referee on whether my kicks at goal would go through. A little banter is fun and helps establish rapport. If a referee is too stiff and formal he usually doesn’t have much rapport with the players and has trouble getting compliance from those players”.
One of the best refs at banter was Bruce Carter who had some witty one-liners that could make both sides laugh during set pieces and throughout the game for that matter.
Jim Crenshaw was another one who would at times engage in banter. This writer recalls asking before the packs came together once if the sir could keep an eye out for some questionable play, and his response was “I’ll let you in on a secret, I can’t see everything, there are 30 players out here so I’m sure someone is getting away with something at any point, that’s life. I’ll do my best to catch any penalties.” You gotta love that kind of reality check from a ref.
We’ve also seen Jim Crenshaw walk off 30 meters in penalties for a player that kept arguing with him (while Jim remained silent waiting for the captain or the team to shut their own player up).
Most the refs did say though comments like the one this writer made to Crenshaw aren’t wise if you aren’t the captain. You should avoid that. They are trying to watch for as much as they can and us commenting to them only annoys them (all of them).
The refs we spoke to also say if you are the captain to remember what they said, if you do have a question, want to talk to the ref to ask to speak the ref, do not just yell out your comments. If you don’t like people whining and complaining all the time, why would the ref? They are also human.
Most times the ref will not change his call so to challenge it doesn’t work. Smith said the thing that never works in having a ref consider your position is if the player lying. “That’s also the same for the ref; we make mistakes and its better to own it so that you don’t loose respect and trust of the players by lying. The only calls that get change is if it’s a matter of law” says Smith.
Smith shared that the refs do work to always keep the high level for referees and to ensure the game keeps its respect for the refs. “There was a young referee that was getting angry and penalizing the teams for any and all back chat. I pulled him aside after the match and told him there are two ways of getting a team’s respect, demanding it or earning it. Demanding it seldom works so respect is a two way street. Refs need to earn it and players and coaches need to afford the refs the benefit of the doubt and hold issues and comment until appropriate times”.
Part of that two way street Smith tells us is to have coaches pick their Captain not because they are the best player on the field, but because they have the best ability and demeanor to interact with the referee so they and their team understand the referee’s decision and can adjust accordingly.
As a player this writer respected the refs that during the game or after would admit an error. We all make mistakes this is a game played by people and judged by people so we all will make mistakes and think back to Crenshaw’s comment that there is 30 players on the pitch and often just one ref.
Hinkin humorously responded to what doesn’t work in trying to get out of a call with the following “As soon as you do something illegal, look up at the ref with pleading innocent, puppy dog eyes and throw you hand up in the air, pretty much says you are guilty. Also if you have the number 1, 2 or 3 on the back of your jersey you are probably guilty so don’t even bother trying to get out of the call”.
Jury said with youth you really have to look at the intent. You still call the penalty but you may need to chat with the player. “If the kid makes a high tackle I have to call it, but I also have to try and see was the intent to go high, or just the situation. For the youth you try and avoid cards if the intent wasn’t there and really have a chat with the offender and the captain. That’s the difference with kids.”
The pet peeve for most refs isn’t just the backchat but when the player or coach is loud and insistent about a call and they are dead wrong. “The worst is when it’s the coach or captain who is arguing the point loudly and with ignorance” noted Smith. Jury shared for him its the parents/fans who really don’t know the game and insist the ref is wrong on a call. “I saw a kid make a high and dangerous tackle that I could have carded the player on but instead penalized him and spoke to him and I’m guessing the person was the kid’s parent kept shouting to me ‘Come on this is rugby’… to which I wanted to say exactly its rugby and we have rules to how this game is played”.
So the lesson here is not to only avoid talking back but if you don’t know the rules you should remain silent.
There are more and more referee courses bring offered and it’s of great benefit to take those even if you don’t plan to become a referee as it does enhance your perspective of the game. This is a great tool for players and coaches.
Smith agrees that it does help a great deal with people attending the ref courses and with a referee shortage the more players who become referees would not only help their own understanding but also help the game as a whole. “There is a tremendous drop off of players from youth to college and college to club. We need to try and target those young players that enjoy the game, but would otherwise drop off before moving to the next level to look at this option. Most players” says Smith “think the refs get abused week in and week out and it’s up to us (refs) to let them know it’s not as bad as they think and largely falls away as they get better. Also remember most refs are ex-players and we are like their teammates they had before, except we get to go to games and tournaments either for free or we get paid and fed”.
Now we figured as a ref these guys have seen some interesting things on the pitch. Bruce Carter shared with us a game that he once officiated (a 7s) where he did not have to make a call and that game was fluid for its entirety and that was a great experience (see our interview with him for details). Jury said that as a ref he’s always for a lack of a better term “ in search of that allusive perfect game and that means its played and as the ref you don’t have to stop it, call anything just let it play out”.
For Hinkin there is the trill of managing a fast, well-played game and getting the most out of it but it really keeps him in touch and involved in the sport as well as active physically.
There are also the wrecks on the pitch that the refs see with guys who may just be out of their element. Hinkin said “That happens in pre-season college games all the time where it is readily apparent that some kids have never seen rugby, have only been to one training session and really have only a basic idea of the game”. He goes on to say “I did a pre-season match last year where there was a break away and a rather small defender chasing the play decided the best way to take down the runner was with a slide tackle. Works great in soccer, but that’s a red card in rugby. Now, I obviously didn’t red card this kid, but we all had a nice chat about how to tackle and that tripping is frowned upon”.
There are great benefits to being a ref as Smith pointed out (getting paid and fed). For Jury the best part now is not just staying involved with the game, but also being part of the next generation of the rugby and seeing the game grow.
“There was a weekend last year where I was going a DI club match and I knew or had played against or with all the coaches and staff on both sides; plus on the adjacent field there was a youth rugby game going on where former teammates were coaching both sided and a few others where there to cheer the kids on who were taking up rugby; plus there was a men’s college match and a women’s college match also going on ALL AT THE SAME PLACE! Not only did that kind of concentration of rugby across all levels not happen when I was playing, but I got to meet up with and say connected to my contemporaries who are giving back by coaching and supporting the game. Referring is how I choose to give back” shared Hinkin.
We hope this insight from these California referees will help you have a better game and/or help your team. For those active or retired refs to consider picking up the whistle and keep growing the game. Thanks to James Hinkin, Jeff Jury, Pete Smith, Bruce Carter, the NCRRS and SCRRC for their help and time.