Referee at fault when match is lost

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Disappointment and heartache are common when you lose a match. But again, the intensity of disappointment is more significant in a rugby match, considering the game’s nature. Rugby, a contact game, though not a blood sport, builds emotion and anxiety more than other sports. In this context, often one finds the cry of a match lost because of the referee.

 Recently I heard stories of many parents blaming the referee for losing their schools game. The cry extends, arguing that their children practice for many days. Still, they lose the effort in seventy minutes of rugby. They direct their anger on match officials and refer to the mistakes they make. Errors on the field are not limited to Sri Lanka but at every game level.

So! are the referees’ errors also highlighted more because the loss puts the heads of coaches on the ‘block’. Referees make mistakes, and there is no doubt about that. The aspect is not limited to Sri Lanka but is a factor all around the rugby-playing world. Does that mean they can get away with issues that crop up that are a weekly narrative of Coaches, Administrators, Fans and Players? 

 This pressure on match officials has been ever-present during Japan›s Rugby World Cup 2019. Since 2019 Rugby has been evolving through the recovery after COVID. Referees, in particular, felt the heat with the sport›s global governing body World Rugby making a statement criticising referee performances early on in the 2019 tournament for ‘not consistently being of the standard expected of the highest level of the game’. That was when the writing was on the wall. Is there any message to be taken from the statement of World Rugby? 

Research into refereeing in rugby has highlighted the intense demand the role places on individuals and the heavy psychological load referees face. The result is poor psychological well-being and poor mental health experiences. The man who holds the world record for the most test matches refereed, Nigel Owens, once gave a powerful interview about his struggles with mental health. That is another side of the story when you keep harping referees make mistakes and keep barraging them. Is there a better way to handle these issues?

Research explores chronic performance-related stress and failure-based depression experiences within elite referees. Early findings suggest that referees are feeling an ever-increasing psychological burden. This increase is associated with constant exposure to mental and physical intimidation through social and traditional media and a perceived lack of game-wide support.

Referees are increasingly walking away from the game at all levels. In addition, referees are now facing increasing concern because of verbal and physical violence threats. Worldwide, referees are experiencing growing physical dangers and psychological trauma.

 The immediate response of fans by shouting at a referee for what they consider a poor decision is seen as unacceptable – but taken to the extreme.

Many national governing bodies are experiencing difficulties retaining referees at the grassroots level, especially young referees (Warner, Tingle & Kellett, 2013). Abuse and aggression from players and spectators are the most common reasons for referees leaving.

Without consideration of the referee’s development, nurturing and management needs, there could be a decline in the participation numbers within the sport. Furthermore, the research illustrates that the referees believe there has been an erosion of the ‘core values of rugby union’. They indicate a decline in the enjoyment factor of officiating within rugby union and its effect on the retention of referees.

The question at home is whether it is an issue forced on by the stakeholders or inflicted by themselves.

While parents talk about referees, I wonder whether they are worried about other issues affecting their rugby-playing children’s well-being. For example, I have seen on many occasions players who receive a head injury return to play. World Rugby requires that a player suffering concussion or suspected of having been concussed must be recognised and removed. Therefore, identifying the meaning of Head Injury Assessment (HIA) and returning to play is essential.

World Rugby’s attempt by its laws to facilitate concussion diagnosis is through the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocol in elite-level Rugby Union. However, this protocol reduces the proportion of players allowed to continue playing after a concussion. The keyword, however, is ‘Elite Rugby.’ Junior Rugby, such as under-19, is not ‘Elite Rugby.’ Therefore, there is no way that a player who has a head impact be allowed to return to the game without proper follow-up observation.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine published an article on Concussion in Youth in Rugby Union and Rugby League. The articles suggests that children are more vulnerable to concussion and its effects than adults. Therefore, make rugby and other contact sports safer for children and adolescents to play.

First aiders with knowledge of concussions and complete awareness of current concussion protocols, such as the World Rugby return to play guidance, should be available at every school and club rugby match involving children and adolescents.

 The Rugby Football Union (RFU) recommend that 19’s in school or college rugby with a suspected or confirmed concussion are only allowed to return to competitive play after clearance by a doctor, and this should not happen before 23 days of the injury.

 In Sri Lanka, the Schools Rugby Football Association has given scant respect to the medical requirements in appointing Match Day Doctors. Instead, citing costs, they have requested the host school to provide a match day doctor. Evidence from actual match incidents suggests that medical staff are conversant with head injury assessments such as the Maddocks test. However, they are least aware of the World Rugby protocols. As happened in practice recently, the doctors have advised sending a player back on the field. In another incident, the visiting school confronted the host team doctor when he suggested not to send a player back to play. Are we playing with the lives of children?

Organisations need to understand the importance of a rugby-qualified Match Day Doctor without quoting increased costs. In addition to HIA there are other areas such as blood bin. A doctor needs to advise the referee. I tried to contact the Secretary or the Tournament Director of Schools Rugby for an opinion, but they were not in communication.

Other studies suggest that head impact injuries happen when a player is at the receiving end of a dangerous tackle. Better education and policing in these areas are the recommendation of relevant research.

Parents and old boys keep talking about the effect of referees’ decisions on their children’s lives. They should also ask why their children are sent back to play after a HIA.

By Vimal Perera