Are referees in crisis?

They are the most hated, vilified and abused group of people involved in the game of rugby league. Their decisions can swing the course of a game from one side to the other and back again. At times they have to be escorted from the pitch, and have even been known to be the subject of physical attacks from fans, with things such as coins and even bottles thrown at them. They are also regularly accused of corruption, or betting on games they’re involved with, yes, we’re talking about referees!

Yes at times it can definitely be said that referees, just like the rest of us, can and do get things wrong. It’s certainly no laughing matter when they do and fans are quick to let them know as they vent their frustrations from the stands and on social media in particular, I should know, I’ve done it myself.

In recent times it has been stated by many people at different levels of the game that refereeing is in crisis, and that some fans are walking away from the game because of frustration caused by several referees’ decisions. The talk on social media suggests certain teams apparently benefit far more from ‘dodgy’ decisions than others. Big clubs like Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors apparently benefit most from them, although I think that the most vehement of the fans who say this have possibly forgotten about the Rhinos disastrous 2016 campaign, and this year’s failures by Wigan to claim the Challenge Cup, or even make the play-offs to defend their Super League crown!

I believe, to start sorting out the multitude of problems that seem to surround referees, that we need to look at the games governing body. The Rugby Football League (RFL) are seen as almost pantomime villains by the majority of those who pay their hard earned money each week from February to October to support the greatest game in the world, and indeed I think they should shoulder some of the blame, although maybe not quite as much as some would maybe suggest.

The problem with the RFL and referees is that they don’t have enough referees at their disposal. On many occasions I personally have seen referees taking charge of at least two games in as many days, going from refereeing a reserves game one day, to refereeing a top flight Super League, Challenge Cup or Qualifiers game the next day in a different part of the country. This may not sound like much of a problem, but a referee has to run around just as much as every player, he’s in the middle for 80 minutes and has a split second to make a decision, while also dealing with irate players and supporters at certain times.

You have to take into account the fatigue factor caused by having to keep up with play in every game, he can’t go and take a break on the wing, or in back play, like a player can while one of his teammates takes over. You also have to factor in the travelling they do, a referee could, for instance, be officiating at a reserves game in Hull on the Saturday and then have to be over in Warrington or even down in the South of France the next day.

Another fault with the RFL is the publication on a Tuesday, on their website, of the jobs that officials are doing every week, this I believe is so open to abuse it’s unreal. Certain coaches have said, when they find out who is the referee for their game, they coach the players to ‘play the referee’ which I believe is absolutely wrong. Personally I think, and I can provide evidence from social media that I’m not alone on this, that yes referees should be told in advance what game(s) they’re required for that week, but don’t publish it on the website days in advance.

I think match officials, and only match officials, should be told in advance, but it shouldn’t be published on the RFL website until the day of the game that they’re officiating at, and not before! I also think video referees should not be named on the website at all, we should only find out who is in the video booth as and when they actually have to make a decision on a try/no try, apart from that, only name them after the game if absolutely necessary, for instance when they’ve given the on-field referee some guidance during a game like about foul play or how to restart a game.

When a referee and his colleagues arrive at the ground, certain people should not be allowed to approach them, again I’m not saying there is anything untoward about the occasional discussion between a chairman/chief exec or other club official and a referee/match official, but it can, quite rightly, arouse suspicion of a possible fix. This would be one way to ensure that these accusations don’t need to be flying around and that can only be a good thing for the game if it is seen as being a very friendly, clean sport, without any suspicion and claims of corruption blighting its image in the public eye.

Having said all this, another way of cleaning up the mess that exists around referees, is that match officials also need to be made accountable for their actions. I’m not saying let’s have them hung, drawn and quartered when they make a wrong decision that costs a particular team a game, but let the press interview them after a game, coaches and players have to do interviews/press conferences straight after a game. I believe that we in the press should be given a chance to ask match officials the questions about decisions that fans/coaches/players want answering.

What everybody in the game needs to understand, is that without referees, there is no rugby league, putting unfair pressure on them is not the way to deal with this apparent crisis, but neither is sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it will go away, or that there is an easy answer to it, because there isn’t!

What I’m getting at is that 1) Referees and other match officials are not named on the RFL website in advance. 2) Match officials are made accountable to the press, to answer questions about the job they’ve done at a particular game. 3) That club officials can in no way try and contact any match official before he officiates at their game, and 4) We need more trained match officials.

Nobody ever said that officiating at a rugby league match, or that justifying certain decisions by a match official was an easy job, it really isn’t, but if supporters are not going to grow further disenchanted with the greatest game of all, certain things need to be implemented to show that rugby league, which has never been afraid of change, is as squeaky clean as fans, and everybody else involved in the game, deserve it to be.