It’s a cold wet January day, and a group of 16-year olds are huddled together on the 22, trying to keep warm and absorb some last pearls of wisdom from their coaches.
The referee approaches for his pre-match briefing and asks for the captain. Blank looks all round, stares at the floor. Coach makes a snap decision and selects the No8, who’s obviously the biggest and loudest member of the team. Newly promoted captain nods and looks vacant during referee’s briefing, says little, game gets underway.
Cut to midway through the first half; the referee awards the fifth penalty for persistent offside in the back line and calls the captain over for the ‘please talk to your players’ chat. The captain returns to players without saying a word. Inevitably there’s a sixth penalty, at which point the referee shows a yellow card, but to the captain rather than the infringing player.
The Captain exits close to tears, coach disgruntled, referee spends next ten or so minutes explaining to the coach, between moments of actual play, why he took that decision.
Now rewind to that freezing briefing at the beginning, this time on the 22 at the opposite end of the pitch. Coach is on the touchline chatting to parents, the team are huddled tight and listening to one of their number who is giving individual pieces of advice and generally psyching his team up.
On seeing the referee this player breaks away, shakes the referee by the hand, looks him in the eye. Conversation ensues; both ref and captain discuss their expectations of each other, captain checks a point of law, then returns to the team to deliver the message.
Now cut to mid-half again, and this team has also given away several silly penalties at the breakdown. Captain called over to clarify decision, referee gives same instruction as to the other captain. Captain asks for a minute with the other 14, reads the riot act. Penalty count reduced to zero for the remainder of the half.
With minor variations, this scenario is played out on school fields up and down the country. The problem persists, albeit to a lesser degree, at university level and low-grade community rugby. It’s a constant source of frustration to community referees. That whilst umpteen hours are spent on coaching the tackle, or the pass, or the backs move, or the scrum, there is nowhere in the coaching manual dedicated to ‘working with the referee’.
The unofficial team of three (ref + 2 captains) is always important, even more so in a community game shorn of the paraphernalia of TMO trucks, tens of thousands of ‘spectator referees’, or even in most cases a basic communications kit, but all too often the role of the captain is underplayed and undercooked when preparing for match rugby.
So, for coaches and teachers, here are a ‘top 3’ tips for your budding captains, and another top 3 of what your captain should expect from the referee.
Alternatively, whilst you are all on this enforced layoff, why not spend a few minutes putting together your own, naturally infinitely better, versions? Here’s hoping that come September they make together for a harmonious resumption of player-referee relations!
1) Have the support of their players. It’s absolutely key even at school level that the captain commands enough respect to be able to communicate and implement the referee’s decisions and requests to his/her players.
2) Have a reasonably good knowledge of the laws, especially relating to forwards if the captain is a back, and vice versa.
3) Will be able to have a respectful and coherent conversation with the referee.
Amongst other things, rugby teaches great communication skills, and what better way to learn than by being the spokesperson for your team. And don’t be ‘that guy’, you know the one: arm-waving, niggling, questioning every decision, calling all the offsides.
In return, your captain can and should expect:
1) To be listened to with an open mind, regardless of age (especially important in developing young players).
2) To receive clear instruction and guidance from the referee as to how they would like to manage the game.
3) To be given clear explanations of all the major decisions, if asked. And in some (admittedly very rare) cases, if the circumstances are right and the conversation appropriate, the referee might even change their mind…after all it worked for the Lions in 2017!
By Julian Edwards