Decisions, decisions… What did we learn from 2015

Well, at this time of year, we often take a look back at the last year, so we can move on with thew new one. And what a 2015 that was!! But from a refereeing perspective, what did we learn?

#1 Great refereeing makes for great rugby (or is it vice versa?)

The Rugby World Cup was a great feast of rugby, culminating in one of the best finals ever. There were some fantastic games (S Africa v Japan jumps out..) with some great audiences (a record 90,000 people watched Ireland v Romania at Wembley stadium – biggest RWC attendance ever!). And it was officiated by a great panel of referees. On the whole, they escaped the publics ire (I said ‘on the whole’…) and in NIgel Owens, we saw a fitting cup final official. It was also good to see new talent coming through as Glen Jackson, JP Doyle, John Lacey and Pascal Gauzere all made their RWC debuts in the middle.

#2 Referees make mistakes

All over the world, match officials make mistakes in the same way every player does (coaches too maybe!). Honest mistakes. We only have one pair of eyes that can generally only look at one thing at any one time – a point made well here. With 30 players doing different things it’s impossible to see and spot everything, I’ll come back to technology later!!  The big mistakes are pored over by the world – we can’t get away from that, nor should we want to. And we may never know why Craig Joubert left the field in the way he did after the Scotland v Australia quarter final, but it’s suggested he didn’t want to face an infield confrontation. An honest decision, that maybe he, or we wouldn’t do again. I don’t think World Rugby helped with CEO Brett Gosper commenting in jest that ‘maybe he needed to go to the bathroom’…  But what it does show is the pressure officials are put under in this day and age. And why Unions need to continue to invest in psychological support for their officials as well as their physical and technical support.

#3 The public doesn’t understand, nor do they want to

After any match, you are guaranteed to find the public spewing angst about the referee. In this social media world, it’s too easy for keyboard warriors to vent and blame, however wrong they may be. As officials we just have to accept that. Officials still need to work with media and broadcasters to make sure they are accurate in their comments and don’t stoke up unnecessary vitriol based on inaccurate perceptions or just plain wrong in law.

#4 World Rugby or Unions still don’t appear to support refereeing

Have you looked at the the World Rugby website for refereeing matters? Or your local Union website? Not that easy to find, I bet. If you want to play or coach there’s a myriad content for you. Want to referee? Much less so. As a refereeing community we need to get on with solving this ourselves. But it’s not just the Unions that are to blame. Society/Association set ups around the world mean it is often established as Us v Them. That needs to change. But in the content for referee front, has plans!

#5 Referee recruitment is a global problem

Although the game is, on the whole, growing all over the world, referee recruitment is struggling. We see recruitment drives all over the world. But on the whole, this is done by voluntary organisations at the grass roots. Are national Unions really investing in referees – let us know if they are! Take Australia for example. One of the game largest Unions in the top tier of world rugby – 0 professional referees. We’re not saying they don’t invest in refereeing, but the message it gives. On the other side of the world, the RFU has 9 full time referees, but still the grass roots struggles.

#6 Referees are human so let’s promoted that

The growth of the Nigel Owens ‘brand’, shows that the rugby public likes a character and it doesn’t mind that he’s a referee. Yet there are few others out there who dare pop above the parapet. Maybe the old adage of “the best referees should be unseen’ remains valid, but we do wonder if public anonymity among our top officials is harming some of the problems raised in #5. There’s a debate to be had about letting match officials speak to the media – that’s one for another day! Being active on social media and visible elsewhere hasn’t stopped Nigel Owens becoming the worlds best referee. Referees are part of the game and we should be proud of the role we play in making our game so great. So get out there and preach the gospel!

#7 Rugby needs to make its mind up about technology and TMOs

Going back to the Joubert incident, everyone accepts that having watched the 17th available TV angle in uber slow mo, Craig Joubert got that decision technically wrong. But in real time, every match official would have made same judgment (and probably called it the same from the comfort of their arm chair – your scribe certainly did! Man in front of a knock on was offside so was subject to penalty. But people still bleat on that he should have referred it to the TMO. In that scenario, a) he couldn’t have done as it was way out of protocol (not a try decision or foul play), b) he saw it as a man in front of a knock on (see #2) and c) the TMO wouldn’t have seen right angle until way too late.

There is much discussion about overusing the TMO – particularly after Jaco Peyper had 6 or 7 referrals to Shaun Veldsman in RWC Game 1. But all the decisions and outcomes were accurate and lead to the correct decisions. It just took too long and as a team of officials they learned from that. I saw a stat that in the 48 games of the 2015 RWC, there were 132 TMO referrals (that’s still less than 3 per match) and the average length of time taken was 70secs, which added together equals 2.5hrs worth of waiting time. Sounds a lot, but it lead to accurate decisions which we then didn’t have to debate later (mainly..)

So, rugby needs to decide what it wants:

– uninterrupted free flowing rugby managed only by the ref with the whistle

– maximum accurate decisions

In this day and age, at the top level of the game, you just can’t have both. If you go with the former, you must accept that the on field officials will miss things and the TV cameras will show the major decisions (or non-decisions) were wrong and castigate accordingly!

If the latter, we need to accept that will involve a stop/start game, but outcomes will be more accurate. Yes, we need to keep tweaking so we find the balance between getting the  “Try, Yes or No” decisions and dealing with unseen foul play – as well as eliminating the howler that the on field team may have missed. But that still leaves some grey areas that will take time and individual interpretation by both referee and TMO. Which will lead to this ongoing discussion.
So, we ask you, the rugby and refereeing public – what do you want??


  1. On TMO use, a tennis/cricket style system, give the captains say x1 TMO referral per half to be used at their own discretion for whatever they deem important enough (e.g. crucial forward pass) and keep the try / foul play system for the officials

  2. Thats for the input Stephen. There’s been a fair amount of chat around this idea in the last few years and we were surprised that the Captain’s Challenge wasn’t included in the law amendment trials that WR just announced. Maybe it didn’t get the requisite support from the Unions or from the Law Review Group involved.

  3. We learned that no referee is infallible. We saw what were probably the best rugby performances of the professional era during RWC2016 and for the biggest majority of the time the referees got it right.

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