Referee unsure whether he will return to rugby league after being attacked twice

When Joe Stearne was attacked whilst refereeing a National Conference League fixture in August, the rugby league fraternity was horrified.

The incident led to Josh Nathaniel receiving a sine die suspension, but shockingly that was not the first time Joe had been the victim in such an incident – and Stearne shared his story in an Our Voice special with the RFL.

Joe works as a Prison Officer, and had only just returned to refereeing in 2021 after taking an extended break to care for his partner, also a Prison Officer who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.

“Like most match officials in the sport, I grew up as Rugby League fan. I’m from Castleford, I played down at Lock Lane from under-6s or 7s – my dad played down there for many years – and I had a bit of time at Cas Panthers as well,” Stearne said.

“Then when I was 13 I think, a refereeing course came up. I liked it and never looked back really. I kept playing for a couple of years, but gradually the refereeing took over, as I’d be doing a fair few junior matches at the weekends.

“We’d train at the South Leeds Stadium on a Wednesday, 40 or 50 young kids would turn up, and we’d have the likes of Ben Thaler, John Holdsworth and Paul Crashley – so much knowledge and experience – it was good to be around that environment.

“For the first few games at any level, you were nervous. I did my first open age game when I was 16 and that was tough – but I stuck with it, managed to work my way up, get on to the RFL ladder, touch-judging, Scholarship games, then under-18s, Academy, Reserves and on to League 1 and Championship.

“I worked in retail then, and built it around being free for rugby at weekends.

“By 2014 I was 18 and just breaking on to the RFL scene, and refereeing a semi final of the Barla Cup, Lock Lane v East Leeds. There hadn’t been anything in the game really, when with about 15 minutes to go, a big brawl kicked off. I calmed it all down, but one of the players attacked me, put me to the ground and stamped all over me, he knocked me clean out.

“I came round in the changing rooms, from what I’m told I got carried off, but obviously it was a shock to everyone.

“It’s that unheard of – the abuse we take is part and parcel of the job, we’re an easy target, but you don’t expect to go to work essentially, and come off after being attacked.

“The police came, I went to the station for an interview, went to hospital and got checked over, and that was it really.

“I took a fair bit of time away from matches, although I still went to the Wednesday night training, just to be around the lads – more to keep me sane really, it was a good way to release your energy.

“It was probably about 16 months before I picked up a whistle and refereed again, I was dreading it to be fair, I was still a young kid really, still not turned 20, and you’re going out refereeing men’s rugby -which is sometimes daunting at the best of times, but after going through the attack, for about five years it was always in the back of my mind. I was always cautious in my positioning.

“There was definitely a sense of achievement to get through that first game back, and once I came back I didn’t look back really, dived straight back in, had a few good years – got promoted to Grade 2 as it was then, Academy and things like that, did a season and got promoted to Grade 1 – I think I was 23 at that point.

“I had two seasons at Grade 1 and then Covid came so I didn’t referee at all last year – I touch judged a few times.

“I only did a couple of games this year, and then found out my partner was poorly, so I took some time away.

“But I decided to come back to refereeing to give myself something else to focus on. I’d only done three games when I refereed at Milford, and got attacked again.

“You turn up as a player and you expect to be knocked about a bit. But when you turn up as a referee, you don’t – and you shouldn’t.

“To be fair to both clubs, Oulton and Milford, they couldn’t have done much more, in terms of splitting it up, and making sure I was all right. I think everyone was as shocked as I was.

“I must have had 300-400 messages, so the support’s definitely been there. I’ve spoken to Sporting Chance, to Rugby League Cares, and to the Match Officials people at the RFL.

“With it having happened once before, I’m not saying I’m used to it but I have been through it. It’s unfortunate it’s happened to me, but I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through it.

“I broke my nose, got a few scratches – luckily other players got in there to stop anything worse.

“I don’t really know where I’ll go from here. I’ll speak to my family and see whether I’ll progress, and if I do carry on refereeing to what standard.

“From what I’ve dealt with in the past, and what I’ve got going on in my life now, and what I do as job, it’s probably given me a bit of resilience to handle it and talk about it.

“Everyone’s got things going on in their lives, and I don’t want any fuss making about what’s going on in mine.

“But the main message is that referees are just human beings, like everyone else – and we’re there so everybody can have a game. It’s a bit different for the full-time guys I guess, but at lower levels you’ve got kids of 16, 17 turning out every weekend. When I was coming through I was doing four or five games a weekend, just so the kids could have a game – because there aren’t enough referees.

“It’s a massive sacrifice that people don’t realise – they think you turn up, do the game and that’s it – but you might have already done a couple more, and then there’s all the training.

“You’ve only got to go on social media after you’ve watched a TV game on a Thursday or a Friday, and the abuse the guys get for just turning up and doing their job, it’s ludicrous really that they think we care about the result – we’re turning up to do a job, we’re not bothered who wins or loses. You can’t referee with emotion, you’ve got to be level-headed, and when the game rises you’ve got to keep your head and keep on top of it.

“I do think this all starts from the top level of the game. People need to realise that there’s kids games every weekend struggling for referees, and you’ve got to look at why. You get abuse at games, and people don’t just leave it there now, it’s all over social media – you stand at a kids game and listen to some of the parents, and they’ll be the same ones bagging the referee that’s on telly.

“Even in the National Conference, a lot of the referees are young, without a lot of life experience – I was there myself, doing it because you’re trying to make something of yourself. People take away that context – they think about the shirt and not the person.

“It’s definitely costing us referees. Most of us keep going, but some walk away because of the nature of the abuse we receive on a week to week basis – and we can’t afford for that to keep happening.”

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