An excellent blogpost by former British & Irish Lions coach Shaun Edwards in today’s Guardian newspaper (UK). This follows a few weeks of negative public comments by Premiership coaches on their match officials!
Thursday 10 January 2013
It’s good to talk: a civilised approach over referees is the best policy
It’s wise not to shout your mouth off in the heat of the moment, and when it comes to arguments over touchline judgments dialogue rather than confrontation is the answer.
A true story which, hopefully, goes a little way towards underlining the complicated nature of rugby and the difficulty in touchline judgments.
About a decade ago a journalist was invited to watch a key end-of-season game from the coach’s bench. Not to report; anything said was to remain confidential, but to get some idea of how a coach — or in this case three coaches — viewed the game. That his conclusions remained secret probably saved a few blushes.
Almost from the kick-off, the view from the bench was that the scrum-half was kicking away too much possession and word was relayed that he should stop. When he didn’t, stricter instructions were dispatched, followed up by a one-on-one session at half-time. When this also failed to produce the desired results, threats were issued. One more kick and the scrum-half would be replaced, which he was with 20 minutes to go.
All of which was very instructive, although not half as entertaining as later that evening when the journalist watched the game replayed on television and heard the match analyst – a former international and a lively mind when talking about rugby – make the errant No9 man of the match.
It proved nothing, but in the light of the current outbreak of post-match criticism of referees, it helps confirm the belief that it’s wiser not to shout your mouth off in the heat of the moment. I don’t think it does any good and it can cause plenty of harm. I can see where both Richard Cockerill and Conor O’Shea, directors of rugby at Leicester and Harlequins, are coming from and have sympathy with both, but I still think the system we have in place, which opts for dialogue rather than confrontation, is the best on offer.
But to understand it, you have to know how it works, and in the case of Cockerill’s complaints about the refereeing of Andrew Small in the Gloucester match, I understand that Ed Morrison, the RFU’s head of elite referee development, got both sides – Small and Brian Campsall from the union and Cockerill and Paul Burke from Leicester – to review the game then discuss it over a conference call. I would have paid good money to have eavesdropped, because Cockerill has a lifetime’s experience of playing in the scrum – the area of his complaint – but what happens next should be key.
If Morrison’s brief is to produce better referees, in much the same way as coaches produce better players, then Small will benefit from the experience.
That is if the process works, which was the essence of O’Shea’s complaint after last Sunday’s game at London Welsh. Coming from a man normally so measured in his remarks, O’Shea has to be listened to because if the system of feedback between clubs and referees isn’t producing better referees, then it in turn also has to be looked at.
For what it’s worth, I can see improvements. My experience is not as immediate as O’Shea’s, but I believe that involving the television official in matters of foul play, which now happens in the Premiership, would have pointed up incidents such as Andrew Hore’s attack on Bradley Davies in the Wales v New Zealand match. I also believe that the process has also rid the game of unpleasant incidents in the tunnel at half-time when coaches sought to win referees over to their point of view. Now those coaches have the option of filling out a card listing up to three issues which he’d like the referee to consider. More civilised and more effective.
Step outside the system and where does that lead. Do we get more incidents like that of Bryce Lawrence, the New Zealand referee who retired after admitting his handling of the World Cup quarter-final between South Africa and Australia was influenced by high-level criticism from Australian sources about an earlier pool match? That may be extreme, but rugby needs to embrace its referees. It’s a remarkably complicated game, where a back-row forward often doesn’t understand what’s going on a yard ahead of him in the front row of a scrum; and it’s a game like no other that can be enhanced by sensitive refereeing and ruined by poor decision-making.
I was always more than happy to see referees at training grounds trying to understand what the coaches were up to and I would be more than happy if there were more guys like Glen Jackson, who turned to refereeing and was fast-tracked to Test status at the end of a playing career which included Saracens and Waikato.
I also feel there is considerable value to be had from redirecting those young professional players who understand the game, but who aren’t going to make it right to the top.
Refereeing can and should be a rewarding vocation. Certainly we can’t play without them.
Shaun Edwards is Wales defence coach and a former Lions coach. He has also coached Wasps and London Irish in the English Premiership