One of the cornerstones of rugby culture is the respect for the referee. There’s been an erosion of this respect over the last few years that saw unpleasant comments in and from the press towards Joubert. Last weekend at the New Zealand stop of the HSBC 7s World Series in Wellington, there were calls during the final that led to similar comments on twitter towards O’Brien.
The trigger for this piece was a question from Tommie on twitter.
It was reported that O’Brien had apologised to the SA 7s team for some of the decisions that he made. Since then there has been a denial that there was an apology or that one was required from World Rugby.
I love rugby but that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to some of issues that are around. Perhaps at times I do wear rose tinted glasses about how it was better in the past though. After Joubert’s experience it was illuminating to hear a referee say that refs make sure they blow full-time near the halfway line so they can make a quick exit. To suggest that refs are in fear of their lives though is incorrect and when refs are violently manhandled at any level, long punishments up to a life-ban are imposed.
So it’s never been perfect respect for the referee but there are unwritten standards and they are slipping. There are two areas that I think the authorities should tighten up on. First is the appealing by players and especially scrum halves waving their arms around at the back of rucks and mauls. They should be told to concentrate on the ball and stop all this frivolous behaviour.
Secondly is the increasing trend by coaches to blame or complain about the referee in post game interviews. Going in hand with this should be an agreement with the TV companies that the interviewer won’t ask about the referee’s performance as a leading question. There needs to be and as far as I understand there is, a way for coaches/teams to provide feedback on a referee’s performance. At some levels I have heard coaches say that they never hear back in this process and I think that this is wrong. It needs to be a two way conversation with the clubs/teams which is exactly what it sounds like has happened in the O’Brien situation. In answer to the tweeted question, I have no problem with an apology or explanation but it should be in the process, behind closed doors and does not need to come via the press.
The O’Brien situation though does throw up a couple of other issues. Where is someone from? From a player point of view we know the rules but what are they from a referees point of view? O’Brien is born in New Zealand but lives and is an Australian referee. Now that we have neutral referees, which teams does that mean he shouldn’t officiate for? By the looks of things it’s Australia as he was the referee in the final in Wellington between New Zealand and South Africa. Did this play a part in any of the decisions? It’s not a question that we should be able to ask and we shouldn’t be putting our referees in that position.
In summary we and the authorities need to protect the respect for referees, it’s a pillar of the sport we love.