The Referee’s View: Youngsters need support, not abuse

Our in house refereeing expert Julian Edwards focuses on a less well-known aspect of schoolboy rugby.

I’m getting old.  Not so old that I can’t keep up with a fast U16 game on a Wednesday afternoon, but old enough that a younger generation of referees are coming up on the rails.   What a great thing though, to be able to hand the grassroots and school game over to a new generation of well-trained, enthusiastic, and totally fit-for-purpose officials with two working knees and a faster brain.

A Referee Society not very far from me has an excellent structure in place for recruiting, training and mentoring Young Match Officials; they even have a dedicated position on their Board for just that.  But as their first major batch of young people begin to transition to adult refereeing, what can they look forward to?

I was at a local club on Saturday in an official capacity: a high-level local club with previous good national and regional pedigree, to watch a supposed friendly game between two well-established local rival women’s’ teams and what I witnessed there would have provided a very pessimistic answer to this question.  A competent, and extremely well-versed young referee (17) was subjected to barracking, questioning and borderline insults, all from the host coaching team.  

No-one can fail to have missed the recent self-imposed social media blackout by broadcasters, ‘Rugby Twitter’, and many clubs and societies from the grass roots to the Premiership, last weekend’s home club included.  But such acts become mere ironic virtue signalling when the team manager of the home club live-Tweets the game, including several references to questionable refereeing decisions, encourages her players to question the referee, and shouts such epithets as  ‘I thought he was supposed to be an up and coming referee, that’s a laugh’, ‘you’re having a laugh referee’, and – when he blew for half time – ‘at least he’s got that decision right’. 

At the end of the game the home team’s coaching staff, who lost – did you guess, failed to even thank him, let alone congratulate him on his excellent handling of a difficult game. Luckily the teenager concerned was very thick-skinned and/or selectively deaf, a referee affliction I find sometimes quite handy, so remained focused on the game throughout, not backing down even when a team member continued during half time to question his decision to penalise her, having sprinted the width of the pitch to argue the point.

We all know that even schoolboy rugby these days has a huge element of power to it. But what of the teenager with the keen rugby brain, but not the rugby bulk, who loves and knows the game inside out? Refereeing is a fantastic opportunity to stay ‘in the game’ for many; the likes of Ridley, Cox, Davidson and Pearce all played to a good level at age-grade before taking up the whistle.  But the sad fact is that many stars of the whistle have all succeeded in spite of, not because of, the actions and words of club coaches and players during their formative years.

The term ‘rugby values’ sometimes has a tendency to induce a bout of eye-rolling, but if one replicates the lack of respect shown on this occasion across the region, or the country even, what will this do for the confidence of a teenage generation already severely affected by Covid, who’ve had a year or more without school sport and with precious few social interactions?  In some respects, the fact that on this occasion the abuse involved a young person is beside the point, but a less confident young person may have simply walked away from the game after this experience.

The community game needs referees, and not all of these are going to come from adult ‘retirees’: recruiting from the schoolboy game is a vital part of the officiating infrastructure.  It’s just a shame that in terms of building for the future, a noisy minority of clubs seem determined to do a demolition job.

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