Friday, March 12, 2010

The Angry Ref - “The Only One Who Could Never Teach Me”

So far this column has mostly been used to respond to the abuse refs take from players on a week-to-week basis but how could we maintain our credibility unless we were willing to crack one of our own?  Today I plan to do just that.  Of course I plan to do it from a ref’s perspective which means none of the things players usually gripe about.  After all players know what their chief complaints are and ref’s know that player complaints are usually based on ignorance of what refs are looking at.  We refs can be a pretty understanding lot when it comes to assessing our colleague’s performance.  We take into account the ref’s experience, the type of match, the ref’s goals etc.  So it takes a special ref to really get under our skin.
A while back I attended a match were I had no official duties.  I was just there for fun to enjoy some time with old friends.  As a friendly gesture I went over to introduce myself to the ref and offer my services as an AR.  I happened to catch up with him at the same time as the visiting coach and was treated to a version of the following speech:

“Now look, I need you to understand that I was a national team player and a national team coach so I don’t need any lessons OK?  I’ve been around a long time.  I’ve done a lot of things on the international level so I don’t want to hear you interpretation of things OK?  I know what I’m doing.”

He then gave the same speech to the home side coach and both captains.  Well after a spiel like that you’d better deliver and based on the high expectations he’d set I’ve never seen anyone fall flatter reffing a match.  He seemed to lack a basic understanding of the law book.  There were obvious infractions that had recently been emphasized by the IRB that he refused to manage until the second half when he gave a penalty and a yellow card for repeated infringement for something he’d never even cautioned players about in the first half.  He rarely employed a primary signal to indicate if the whistle was a full penalty or a scrum or to show which side had offended.  The result of this being that neither the ARs nor the teams knew where to go.  In the second half both teams got in the habit of backing off ten meters at every whistle just in case.  This lack of communication with the players was topped off with a lack of communication with the sidelines as the ref rarely used secondary signals to inform the audience of what infraction he was calling.  Thus I had this exchange several times:

“What did he call there sir?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t indicate.”


In what seemed like an effort to compensate for not using the proscribed signals he then spent way too much time talking to players about their infractions.  A short word or clarification may be appropriate when the ball is out of play but having a lengthy discussion when the penalty is not a mater of safety and the non-offending team wants to take a quick tap is irresponsible and kills the flow of the game. 

Speaking of the flow of the game, he was also often out of position to see what was going on.  During one sequence a player knocked-on trying to field a kick, the ball was recovered by an offside teammate who then tried to pass the ball to the player who had knocked it on causing that player to knock it on a second time.  Three infractions in five seconds and the ref didn’t see any of them.  He also didn’t use his ARs for help.

To say it was one of the most uneven performances I’ve ever seen wouldn’t be a stretch but it would have been more than forgivable if he hadn’t done so much chest thumping ahead of time.  If he had simply shown up, said hello, and done the match it would have been just another performance from another ref.  Sometimes they’re good, sometimes there’s things you don’t like but in the end you’ve played the game and you forget about it.  But this gentleman had done so much to raise expectations that his failures were magnified to the point of being unbearable. 

The ref who followed him for the B side game would have been even more of a debacle if not for two things.  He readily admitted that it was only his third game ever and he showed up at the pub willing to discuss the match.  After the match he wasn’t at all defensive going as far as to admit he had carded a player prematurely based on being skittish after his last game had ended in a punch up.  The simple act of humility and respect for the players helped to mitigate the second ref’s shortcomings and made the B side players, coaches and spectators feel better about the game.

Looking back I think it’s possible that the first ref knew of his shortcomings as a ref but his national team sized ego couldn’t handle the fact that his previous success didn’t translate to his current endeavor.  It’s also possible that he was completely unaware of his problems and couldn’t fathom why he had been yelled at by so many unhappy people since taking up the whistle.  I may never know if he used his bravado as a shield to hide his insecurities or if he really thought he was as good as he claimed. One thing that was apparent was that he lacked respect for the game that day.  He seemed to feel that he was too good for a lowly DIII friendly.  After all, he’d been a national team player and a national team coach.  Well, clearly he’s not a national panel ref.  


Every game is important to the players.  For many of them the level they are at is the highest level they will ever reach.  Once the game starts the players don’t usually care if it’s a friendly or a league match, they want to win.  It’s serious for them and it should be serious for the ref too.  That is one thing I promise to all players I referee, I will always take the game as seriously as you do.  This ref’s lack of respect was evident in his pre-game posturing, his in game conduct, and the fact that he did not come to the social or make himself available after the match.  But hey, he was a national team player and a national team coach (and in this column I still don’t think I’ve mentioned that as often as he did that day) so what could he possibly learn from us?

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