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Written By: Adam McQueen
Contrary to the players on the field, the less a referee is noticed during a match, the better. If there are murmurs rumbling around the clubhouse about officiating after a game, odds are the comments are not showering the referee in glory. I have yet to hear a player laud the match officials for leaving their fingerprints upon the game.
However, the well-documented refereeing controversy during the crucial World Cup qualifier between Spain and Belgium has amplified clubhouse rumblings into complete uproar and outrage. A game between these two nations in the Rugby Europe International Championship (otherwise known as Six Nations B) would usually draw modest attention at best. Yet after the antics where referee Vlad Iordachescu denied Spain’s qualification to their first Rugby World Cup since 1999, the competition has become the most hotly talked about rugby topic across the globe.
After the match, the penalty count leaned 25 to 4 in Belgium’s favour, an absurd number that warrants a second glance. Even more important to the outcome was Belgium’s Fly Half, Vincent Hart, nailing 6 shots at goal - all of Belgium’s points - from this mountain of penalties enroute to an 18-10 victory. A placekicker who is on fire from the tee is akin to a hockey goalie standing on his head come playoff season - it can change the entire complexion of a match.
It would be egregious to blindly accuse the refereeing staff of match fixing, no matter how strongly the stench of corruption lingers. Granted, the optics do not paint a picture of transparency given that Iordachescu’s home nation of Romania would qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup upon a Spanish defeat. The controversy becomes even shadier when news trickled in that not only had Spain requested a different team of officials weeks in advance, but that Rugby Europe had denied these requests. Oh, and who is the president of Rugby Europe you ask? Former Romanian international Octavian Morariu.
The calamitous situation has reverberated across the globe amongst rugby fans. New details emerge daily, clouding an already murky picture. World Rugby has continuously stalled upon making a conclusive decision in the wake of player eligibility issues suddenly popping up like a fairground whack-a-mole game. In short, the past month has been an ugly look for rugby.
However, one thing that is abundantly clear from the debacle that occurred in Brussels - competent refereeing is integral to the game. The decisions the man or woman in the middle makes has an impact that is profound in comparison to other sports. In the span of eighty minutes Iordachescu’s decisions swung the fortunes of multiple countries with years of preparation, pride, and money on the line. If this blemish upon the game has taught the rugby community nothing else, it is that we must not diminish the value of quality officiating nor the culture of respect towards referees in order to create the best product possible.
So what is the perfect recipe for a quality referee?
According to Nathan Abdelnour, the Manager of Match Official Development at Rugby Canada, there is no one size fits all answer.
“At the end of the day what we as referees want to see is a product on the field that is enjoyable to watch and enjoyable to play. The role of every referee at any level is mostly based on that. How they go about it may be different."
In order to facilitate a free-flowing game that is beloved by viewers and players alike, the referee must toe the line between disciplinarian and game manager. Finding a sweet spot that middles a delicate balance between overbearing and leniency during the game is essential in creating a cohesive flow of play.
"There are two schools of thought in terms of going out and managing a game – let the game come to you or establishing a standard early and letting players know where the line is,” explains Abdelnour, who has already accrued fourteen years of refereeing experience. “Personally, my approach is dictated by what I feel the game needs. For younger players that are newer to the game, sanctioning early tends to establish an understanding for players as to what is and isn't acceptable. Senior players tend to know what they are doing so we [referees] can let the game come to us more. However, there is a time in a senior game, maybe a hotly contested playoff match, where you need to set a standard."
Rugby has the ability to paint a unique picture every match. From adverse weather conditions to differing approaches at the nuanced areas of the set-piece or breakdown, teams are able to adopt infinite variations of playing styles. In turn, this creates endless shades of grey for referees that are forced to make black-or-white decisions. The officials that are best equipped to oversee games that are as unpredictable as the bounce of the oval shaped ball are those that read and prepare for a match in similar fashion to the players.
"Much like players and coaches, referees that go into a game prepared for the various possibilities and potential outcomes of a game are more likely to have success,” Abdelnour explains. “It cannot be about looking for specific things, but rather scenarios that referees will encounter and preparing how to manage them and the players."
Viewing the game through the same lens as a player enables the referee to envision what passage of play will or should happen next. They are then able to prepare themselves in advance of the upcoming contact point or breakdown. Another benefit from understanding the game from this perspective is that it creates an empathetic relationship between the official and the players. It is the nature of this very relationship that often dictates the continuity and quality of the game.
“I think the teams and players that adapt best to the officials are the ones who have a positive relationship with officials whether or not they agree with them. At the end of the day you won't change that referee's mind in that game!” laughs Abdelnour. “That relationship aspect is definitely what sets rugby apart from any sport that I have been a part of or officiated.”
The culture of respect in the player-referee relationship that Abdelnour alludes to permeates throughout every facet of rugby. It is the foundation that the game has built itself from – a unique selling point of camaraderie that draws people in from other sports. Current World Rugby 7’s Player of the Year, Perry Baker, explained that exact sentiment in an earlier interview with Ædelhard as he transitioned away from the gridiron.
“Rugby is totally different. Our culture is just so diverse. It’s crazy. You have all these people with different backgrounds and perspectives and… it’s a brotherhood. In rugby, everyone is together.”
However, during the blowup in Brussels, this pillar of respect crumbled. Although the Spanish players' World Cup dreams were seemingly in tatters, their physical and verbal abuse of Iordaschescu after the match was disgusting. It was reminiscent of a soccer team circling the referee like a pack of rabid animals – an all too familiar picture that rugby fans repeatedly mock. Yet in this case, rugby was no better.
"Did the referees and the players establish a good working relationship in that game?” Abdelnour asks. “Maybe not. At the same time, everyone needs to stay in control of their emotions. If we allow for those kind of actions to go unsanctioned then we are opening the door and allowing for little things to creep in from game to game.”
The sheer volume of decisions a referee has to make throughout a game builds an immense amount of pressure. As such, rugby relies on the tradition of reverence between the players and officials. There are countless viral videos of prominent match official Nigel Owens reeling off witty one-liners and quips to hulking players that are double his size. But how do those that do not possess the stature of Owens command the same level of respect from the players?
Abdelnour, who has led recruiting and education for domestic referees at Rugby Canada during the past five years, notes that nothing can replicate the lessons learned from on-field experience. Once a referee becomes comfortable in their role in a match, they are then able to more confidently converse with players while concurrently separating themselves from the intensity of the match.
“Rugby is an emotional game and you are going to get some feedback from players, which is fine! You are asking players to play in a contact sport which is physically exhausting and they get mentally tired. You must be able to set yourself apart from that emotion of the game and make sure that our management with players is focused on actions that need to happen rather than emotional responses to what players think should happen."
Modern rule changes have promoted a faster brand of rugby which values continuity. This increased tempo forces referees to make a greater amount of decisions in a shorter span of time. For example, during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, there was an average of 178 rucks per game, nearly double the average amount twenty years prior. Officiating mistakes are bound to happen as rugby evolves, but Abdelnour maintains that the mantra to “not sweat the small stuff” is critical for refereeing success.
“There is no way you are going to get them all right," Abdelnour says of his on-field decisions. “If we work with players to get them to focus on playing the game as opposed to concentrating on decisions that were or were not made, that is where players will then accept the fact that these things happen just like knock-ons do or errant passes into touch."
Yes, referees are human too. They are prone to lapses in judgement just like the rest of us.
The fallout from the blowup in Brussels will not dissipate in the foreseeable future, or at least not until World Rugby makes a definitive ruling. Despite the soap opera level of drama that has come with it, this situation serves as a timely reminder that the greatest game on earth stands and falls on the principles it has been built on. Rugby referees, as has been recently proven, have great scope to make many decisions. Our decision as participants, consumers, and administrators must be to never place such an unfair burden on our game again. Quite simply, rugby is still a game of barbaric physicality where the players and referees observe an almost quaint relationship with each other and the rules. This relationship is the basis of all that is unique and attractive about rugby.
Destroy that and we destroy the game.