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THE BANTER AND THE BILE

4 April 2024
england v south africa: semi final rugby world cup france 2023
New Zealand’s top referee Ben O’Keeffe has bounced back well from a tough October, when he copped plenty from French fans.

Campbell Burnes attempts to unravel the issue of abuse of match officials, how bad it is in New Zealand, and what support systems are in place for those affected.

Referees are, like us, human.

In fact, I am reliably informed that they carry 97 per cent of the DNA shared by the rest of the human race. That didn’t stop one of my old coaches saying, only half-jokingly, ‘All refs are f.’ He was wrong, of course. Most of them are good people, rugby people to the core. They love the game and are not trying to ruin your Saturday afternoon. Many shelve their egos, knowing that even if they have a great game, there will be no mention of them in an online or newsletter match report. They have the best seat in the house, as the marketing slogan goes, and they want to see good, hard, fluent rugby if at all possible.

But they also must have thick skins as there is plenty of banter flowing at grassroots level, some of it humorous, some of it pointed. We hope the proverbial line is not crossed. By the time you reach elite, international status, you’re well paid but right in the firing line for some vile bile, much of it coming in waves via social media. How you deal with that is critical.

Abuse of referees came under the spotlight during last year’s Rugby World Cup, where the match officials were operating under tight edicts from World Rugby, which is running scared on the vexed issue of player welfare. It was further highlighted in the release of the Whistleblowers documentary, which hit RugbyPass TV in February and is, frankly, appointment viewing.

So the question was how to approach this feature. I was interested in not only the support systems in place for our (now) four fulltime pro refs, but how prevalent referee abuse was at grassroots level and how much the advance of technology (read: social media) has altered the landscape in that area. We sometimes see player abuse of referees, or in-venue spectator abuse of match officials. The most famous case of player-referee ‘abuse’ came in the 2013 English Premiership final when Wayne Barnes sent off Dylan Hartley for purportedly calling him a “f* cheat”. Hartley claimed he was saying that to an opposition player.

There was a time when the lunatic fringe on talkback radio would stoke the fires. We know what happened after the 2007 RWC quarter-final when Barnes, not unnaturally for a green international whistler, froze in the headlights.

Imagine if Paddy O’Brien’s ‘trainwreck’ of a 1999 France-Fiji RWC match had taken place after the creation of Facebook in 2004? Every aggrieved nutter of a non-rugby person would have been into him.
There was some concern out there that this article, however balanced it may be (one would hope), would have a negative effect on prospective referees, who might then shy away from taking up the whistle like some overwrought parent who forbids little Johnny to play rugby at aged six because they think he might one day become demented… don’t get me started on that latter view.

But it’s important to shine some light on it, just as suicide should be talked of more often. Why should we allow referees to suffer in silence because some so-called fan gets overheated down at the local park or some keyboard warrior, hiding behind his anonymous cloak, thinks referees are fair game for not just unfair potshots but, frankly, criminally and personally abusive posts and tweets.

New Zealand Rugby high performance referees manager Chris Pollock knows the score. He oversees the four fulltime pros – Ben O’Keeffe, Paul Williams, James Doleman and Angus Mabey – plus a group of about 70 men and women who form the next tier in our game. Pollock was good enough to referee 204 first-class games. He came under real heat for his handling of the first Australia-Lions Test in 2013.

“We’ve always had some support networks. When I started reffing, we had access to mental skills coaches. We’ve definitely upped that. We’ve got a resource (Jason McKenzie) with our fulltime guys. He’s contracted to cover a day and a half a week. That’s also for our next tier of elite match officials. Jase’s very good in that space. He can help on a day-to-day basis or if something goes wrong,” Pollock says.

What about social media? Is it as simple as telling refs to stay off their Facebook or Instagram, or even X (Twitter)? That’s like telling the players to stay off it. It’s hard to enforce.

“It’s a challenge. People enjoy being on social media these days and that can open yourself up. I guess what we are saying is to keep your social media account private. Some are happy to do that, some are using their social media as an education piece. We are working through what that looks like and what’s the best way to do that,” says Pollock.

He points to the NRL and how some of their TV pundits go through key decisions and explain why it was correct or incorrect. That works for league, which has fewer laws and is more black and white, but that could be ‘can of worms’ time in rugby.

There was a time when SANZAAR allowed media, on request, to talk to referees post-match. It was not widely utilised, but it could turn bad now in these days of clickbait.

World Rugby is, however, stepping up its policing of abuse for major competitions. Some New Zealand-based social media accounts, among others globally, were being investigated after the World Cup.
“Social media accounts get monitored and any kind of abuse gets picked up by them. If it gets bad enough, it gets transferred to the relevant authority. I think it’s a great initiative. It’s too easy for people to sit behind a keyboard. They see that as their avenue to vent. Referees can become easy targets,” Pollock says.

It’s hard for referees to connect directly with fans, though they did it years ago in Rugby News with Jeff the Ref, which broke down more obscure rugby laws. But they can connect more closely with coaches, captains and senior players, as well as the front-rows prior to each game.

The Kiwi professional refs are linked to a Super Rugby Pacific franchise, which means they do not control games involving that team. But they can work closely on points of law, trends, and law changes and regulations. That has allowed players to ask questions, and for referees to grow knowledge about what teams are trying to achieve. Pollock says it has been a win-win initiative.

Maybe that’s part of the reason we don’t see elite referees being harassed and jostled, as we see in professional soccer. Or maybe it’s because rugby is just a better sport. Where else would you see a referee, Angus Gardner, change his decision after a query by player TJ Perenara? That’s not abuse. That’s constructive interaction.

“We accept that criticism is part of the job when you step into that professional environment. But sometimes it definitely goes too far,” says Pollock.

Best, if you can, to listen to the right people, such as your referee coach, mentor or boss. The rest is just white noise.

I sought grassroots viewpoints from former national panel referee James Munro, still active at Canterbury premier level, and Northland Rugby Union’s referee education officer (REO) Robert Rush. Both agree that there’s a fine line at times between banter and criticism that might morph into more serious abuse cases.
Munro endorses the Keep it Positive campaign launched by the Canterbury union last year around the treatment of match officials. On the question of whether abuse occurs more often the lower down the club grades you go due to less seasoned whistlers and less knowledgeable spectators, he had this to say: “Every game of rugby’s going to have a different element, but the big piece to understand is that at the lower grades we have referees that are still learning their trade. They won’t have that same innate knowledge of the laws, but unless they are out there getting that experience, they are never going to get to the Ben O’Keeffes of this world in their career. We have to provide an environment that allows them to enjoy their experience and encourages them to learn and get better,” says Munro, now with 128 premier club games under his belt plus a stack of Miles Toyota Championship First XV clashes.

Munro himself has taken the whistle in Under 11 grades and says he hasn’t been overly troubled by overzealous parents living vicariously through their kids.

“It does remind you that we actually have a pretty positive community rugby spirit at that level.”
At premier level, Munro contends that he has seen little that has shocked him over the years, but he does get into the zone when he takes the field.

“It’s a big field, right? You do have to have a bit of a thick skin. You cannot take offence to everything. Some jibes will be there. But it’s the persistent and personal ones that we really need to stamp out. I tend to have quite a lot of wax in my ears on Saturdays!”

He says there is a good collegial spirit amongst match officials in Canterbury, with meetings on Mondays and fitness sessions on Wednesday. They are encouraged to have a beer in the clubhouse, which immediately establishes an intimacy, rubbing shoulders with fans and players who have seen you officiate. There’s always plenty of free advice for referees, much of it friendly, some of it pointed.

At my old Auckland University club, referees had to be on their toes during the 1980s and ’90s with the likes of John Drake, John McDermott, Mata’afa Keenan and Sean Fitzpatrick, all of whom liked a chat. You had to be seasoned and firm with the whistle when those guys were telling you to sort out the scrum and ‘thanks, ref, knock-on there’.

Munro says having the right attitude with the whistle can solve most problems. It’s about having fun while trying to let the game flow and making the right call while you’re about it.

Rush has pretty much seen it all as a fan, referee and assistant referee. He says the Northland Respect the Ref programme, launched in 2023, was a worthy initiative that saw a few more referees sign up. More still are needed in the north.

The support now offered for aspiring refs and the overall atmosphere at games is now much better, says Rush.

“A lot of the Northland RFU staff are across the clubs and their social media. As soon as they see stuff come up online, they are straight onto the clubs,” says Rush.

It stands to reason that the more eyeballs on a game, the more chance of abuse. So a Rugby World Cup final, with millions watching, will elicit more online abuse than a small Northland club game at, say, Lindvart Park, Kaikohe.

“The crowds are better. They realise that a younger referee might make a few more mistakes. Coaches and managers are a lot better too. We have sideline managers in place up north that referees can rely on if there’s a noisy character in the crowd. That works,” says Rush.

“But just because someone’s loud in the crowd, doesn’t mean they are abusing the referee. They just might not be agreeing with the decisions.”

He says one of the issues is that some fans aren’t up with the play with the admittedly ever-changing laws. Rucking is no longer a central feature of the game. High shots are not ruled leniently.

Rush believes assistant referees have a hard job. Many might be makeshift in the role and have to cop abuse or ‘advice’ from someone behind them in the crowd, whereas one can be more in the zone as referee in the middle of the field.

Pollock referred me to a radio interview by Jason Pine with All Blacks assistant coach Jason Ryan in the wake of the Whistleblowers release.

“Jase is really supportive of referees. He said that first and foremost when things go wrong in games, coaches and players need to look at themselves. It’s generally not about one decision. There are plenty of opportunities for players to execute better,” Pollock says.

He says that no one wants to see the passion of fans doused, nor the ability of fans to have an opinion about the game and, by extension, the referee.

“Sometimes a lot of the stuff comes from being passionate about your team. We don’t want to take that away from people, but rugby is a very complex game. It’s not black and white. There’s going to be some subjective stuff in there. We aren’t going to get it right all the game. Our sole purpose is to adjudicate a fair game of rugby. We don’t want the limelight,” says Pollock.

Some referees are better than others at the top. That goes for the grassroots too. The key point is not to cross that fine line between barracking and outright abuse. The game can live with the former, but not the latter.

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