A teacher’s approach to refereeing rugby

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In the last week I have refereed 6 competitive games of school rugby. After each game I have had opposition parents or staff kindly (stabbing their finger into my chest with raised voices) share their opinion (now if they could just allow me off the pitch before they do this) of the standard of my refereeing (I know I have a limited vocabulary, but I can at least manage more than 4 letter words), with some excellent handy pointers where I could improve (get another profession/give up/learn laws).

However the students that play hardly ever give me any issues and on numerous occasions tell me they thought I was alright (high praise indeed). In rugby you have the opportunity, after safety checks, to speak to both teams. I explain to them I am a teacher, that I will undoubtedly make mistakes and then I clearly explain what my interpretations of the laws are. I tell them I am there to make them safe, and to help in facilitating their enjoyment of playing the game. On the whole I believe I usually achieved both these outcomes.

This is my approach when refereeing school rugby matches from U12 to U16 level:

1. Safety first

This is by far the most important aspect of the role of referee, especially at school boy level. It is a contact sport and has a higher than normal risk of injury associated with playing it. Whatever you can do to prevent that is key. When I do a stud check I also ask students to put their gum shield behind their backs at the same time so I can see. They do not play if they have inappropriate footwear or no gum shield. This has caused issues in the past, but this is not something I will slip, just to allow a child to play. The other area that causes issues is if I feel the scrum is unsafe. If I’m not happy and think its dangerous I will make the decision to go uncontested. This doesn’t happen often, but in the end my concern is safety.

2. Learn the Captain’s, scrum half’s, hookers and flyhalf’s names in the opposition team.

In rugby you get to have an ‘informal chat’ to the teams. This is where you explain your interpretation of the laws, recap some of they key areas like engagement of the scrum or when the ball is out. I make sure I learn the names of key players and positions, especially the ones that are responsible for restarting play. This really helps the pace and flow of a game and keeping it safe. Calling a student their name on the pitch during a heated moment can really help to defuse things. It also sets the standards for respect between you and the players which creates a far better environment. I use this approach when refereeing any school sport now including football and it really creates a good atmosphere on the pitch.

3. Offside is key

After safety, offside is my other area where I do not let slip. My belief is If I can keep both sides onside at the breakdown, then the game is much more open and flows well. I talk constantly to both sides about where the offside line is, trying to highlight to individuals where they are standing will result in a penalty. I give a penalty advantage every time I see offside. Most sides I referee pick this up very quickly after the first few minutes of the game. After that both sides are allowed to play attractive attacking rugby if they desire.

4. I hardly use my whistle and play lots of advantage

There is this strange belief in sport. When you watch it from the sidelines or the comfort of your own sofa, you can see everything that the referee misses. When you referee you don’t see a lot of what is going on. There is an element of truth in that, but for me I actually see a lot more when I referee. If you have ever refereed an U12 rugby fixture where all the students are playing their first game you’ll understand what I mean. Both sides in school boy rugby are probably breaking the laws constantly. If I was to follow the letter of the laws I would be using my whistle constantly. As I know from both a player and as a coach of players, this experience of rugby is one of the most frustrating and off-putting to playing the sport. You never get to play the actual game. My approach is simple, if I see both sides breaking the laws, but the attacking side still have possession of the ball and the defending side hasn’t gained an advantage I let play continue. I tell the teams what they have done, say they have advantage and I ask them to continue to play. This makes the game flow so much better and makes it more enjoyable. I then only use my whistle for dangerous play or if I want to bring a quick stop. The use of the whistle then is much more effective then.

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5. I talk constantly and explain my decisions

This point leads from from the last. I’m constantly verbalising to the players what I am seeing, and what I want them to do. This helps with the flow of the game and also teaches them what they can and can’t do. For example ‘green player ruck has formed, keep your hands of the ball, keep your hands of the ball, blue you have advantage, green handling ball after ruck has formed, play on.’ I would only stop play if I felt that blue had lost a significant amount of advantage. In the break of play I would explain to the green player why I called that. This then helps students to understand the laws and has the added bonus of other players knowing that I will penalise them for it. In the end these students are novices of the game and need someone to help teach them whilst they are playing. A lot of referee’s use their whistle to teach school boys how to play. If a student is constantly making the same errors, the whistle is not going to help educate him on how to improve and be safe.

6. In 50/50 decisions I am biased against my own school side

I make this very clear to any of my school sides before I play, so much so I know hear a collective moan when they see they have me to referee. If there is a 50/50 call or decision, and I am unsure of what to do, I will always fall back on giving the opposition the benefit of the doubt. This has a calming effect usually on the opposition team. My students know that I will approach the game this way. I tell them being able to play under those conditions, where you may feel a referee is being unfair, and still keep your discipline, is hugely important for both their individual and teams development.

7. I never use my cards

If students make a reckless challenge, if they lose their temper, I don’t send them off. I ask the opposition coach to remove them from the game before I send them off. I believe the card, when a student has lost their temper and let their emotions get the better of them, does not help educate them in how they should conduct themselves on the pitch. Allowing them time off the pitch to cool down and then speak to the coach about the incident is far better approach. If a player is repeatedly infringing, especially in their own 22 I will again ask the coach to take him off and reinforce what he is doing wrong. Sometimes they come back on, sometimes they don’t, but in the end I want them to be educated in their knowledge of the game. Every now and then I debate this one with myself.

8. Swearing is an issue

In my view swearing is unacceptable on or off the pitch. We are in a school environment and as a teacher should, I would be no more accepting of such language on the field than I would be in the classroom. Representing your school in a sport is not an excuse to drop these standards. As a schoolboy rugby player myself, I remember if we swore in a fixture we would be sent from the field and saw the Head to discuss our conduct at the next available opportunity. Repeat of this would have us withdrawn from any sport. Again I will ask the student to leave the pitch and explain to the coach that when they come back on again, if their is a repeat they will leave the pitch for good.

In the end the games are for the students. I have found this approach is one that is best for their safety, wellbeing and enjoyment of the game. Yes I know I’m not fully enforcing the laws of rugby, but these are students who are learning the game and playing for enjoyment and as part of a healthy and active lifestyle. What they are not are miniature versions of of the professionals we see on T.V. and because of that I will continue to adapt the rules to ensure that is reflected in what I believe is the right approach. My concern is that they leave the pitch safely and happy, not that I got every call right. Perhaps people need to be reminded more often that the referee is always right, even when he is wrong.

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8 thoughts on “A teacher’s approach to refereeing rugby

  1. I really like your strategy of asking the opposition coach to take the player off the field, rather than carding them – as you say, a much better way for them to learn and/or correct their behaviour. Sorry that you have to put up with the complaints from parents/staff after the game, though. That too is unacceptable behaviour.

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    1. Hi Fiona. Thanks for your comments. Im guilty of it myself on occasions where you put winning ahead of the educational purpose of school sport. Think this method allows a teacher to at least attempt to educate the student on a number of different areas; tactics, behaviour, managing emotions, putting others before self. Sport I feel can be a vehicle for education if used properly. Just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your blog. Your post on the misconception of the 10,000 rule is excellent.

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  2. A very balanced post. Having played rugby myself, coached and ref’d at school level and most recently watched my son play U10s-U12s club rugby, I agree with you whole-heartedly. As you say, most school matches are about learning the game and not everyone plays regularly. Making the game fair and enjoyable for all should be the main objective.

    I’m sure my son would agree that the game is better when it’s allowed to flow, but also that neither side must be allowed to gain significant advantage because key laws are not applied fairly.

    Your point about learning the names of key players is right. The value of that approach is seen in internationals and professional games too. (Quite comically in the recent England game, when Nigel Owens brought the England captain up short with a “Christopher!”)

    Rugby values, such as respect and teamwork, are so valuable and if school rugby is coached and ref’d in a positive, balanced way, as you suggest, many more young people will enjoy and benefit from the experience.

    Disappointing that you have to put up with abuse from spectators – they should know better. Keep up the good work.

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    1. Hi Paul. Thanks for you comments. Safety and learning has to be key in rugby, especially as it is a game with higher associated risks than other sports. As a school boy referee we have to keep that in mind and so do the spectators. There is nothing more off-putting in rugby than a whistle happy referee that doesn’t allow the game to flow. If children wanted to play a stop=start game like that they would go play American Football. As for the abuse from the parents, it isn’t so bad. They just feel they have to let me know that I missed things in the game at the end. I don’t care as long as they aren’t swearing and violent and that all the children walk off the pitch happy, safe and wanting to come back and play again.

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