What It Takes To Be A Rugby Referee?

I am not going to write a piece sounding like a fitness expert or a psychologist, but rather like somebody that has been a referee for the last 5 years, sharing the lessons I have learnt along the way. These views are entirely my own, and are not endorsed by any club or society I might be a member of.

I think the place to kick-off would be your reason for wanting to be a referee. I think most of us would agree that it is an extremely difficult job to do, but if you are not going to enjoy it; stay away! Very few people will reach the pinnacle as a referee, and for every referee you see on TV, there is probably a 1000 running on some school or club’s fields. Nigel Owens told us in 2013 that he still enjoys every game he referees, even after being a referee for roughly 25 years! So, whatever your reason is for wanting to be a referee, make sure you are first of all doing it to have some fun, and the rest will follow. You do, however, have to make sure you are 100% committed to that reason and that you really want to walk down this path. It can be a very tough and lonely pastime, so, if you are not committed, you will run away after the first tough match!

The foreword of the Law Book states that the referee’s main function is to ensure the game is played within the Laws of the game and that he should fairly apply all the Laws of the game in every match. I strongly feel that this can only be achieved with the cooperation of the players, and the referee should make sure that he communicates this clearly to the players prior to the match…you can be the best referee in the world, but if the players are not going to try and play within the Laws, the game will be spoilt.

In my opinion, you will need the following attributes to be a successful referee:

  1. Mental toughness: This basically boils down to having a thick skin. You will be shouted at by coaches, spectators and sometimes even players. If this is going to get you hot under the collar and make you lose focus, refereeing is not for you. I don’t condone the abuse hurled at referees for one minute, but unfortunately it is part of the package, and you have to deal with it. You are only in control of the players on the field, but you have very little control over the coaches, and none over the spectators. It is important that you stay cool, calm and collected in even the toughest environment, as the game is about the players and their enjoyment of it.
  2. Common sense: Referees often describe this as Law 23 (the law book has 22 actual laws). Common sense dictates that you can’t penalise every offense at the breakdown, because there will be no open play in such a game…you look at something we call “materiality”. All that this means is that we have to decide whether an offense has an influence on the game or not…if not, play on! The good referee will at the next break in play call the transgressing player over and explain what you saw, why you didn’t penalise and request him to play within the laws of the game. Part of common sense is also to referee the match in front of you; this basically means you need to assess the skill level and knowledge of the players on the park, and adapt to it. This does not imply that you will disregard certain sections of the Law Book; you might just be a bit more lenient in terms of your application of the Laws.
  3. Communication skills: I have alluded to referee management in some of my earlier points, this basically means that a good referee can manage a game in such a way as to minimise stoppages. I always tell captains before a game that if players listen on the field that I can manage you out of penalties and free kicks…i.e. “tackler roll away or you are of your feet, release”. This is a difficult aspect of the game for a referee, but as your experience grows, it becomes easier. It is also important to treat players, irrespective of age and skill-level, with courtesy and respect. It is much easier to gain the respect and cooperation of players if you don’t talk down to them, but explain your decisions clearly and concisely.
  4. Decisiveness: It is imperative to make a decision as soon as you see something; or immediately afterwards. The players will lose trust in you if you dither over decisions, so decide on your course of action as soon as you see an incident. You will always have players disagreeing with some of your calls, you need to be sure in your mind what you saw and sanction accordingly.
  5. Consistency: Basically you need to apply the Laws fairly to both teams. I have often had coaches say that they will often disagree with a referee’s interpretation and/or application of a specific law, but if it is applied equally to both teams, they can work with it. It also implies that if you penalise a specific team for an offense, you need to penalise them every time they commit the offense. It will only confuse players if you allow them to perform an action now, but penalise them for the same action a few minutes later.
  6. Law Knowledge: Yes, it’s not rules, it is called Laws! This is non-negotiable, because making law errors on the pitch is unforgivable. Knowing the laws well will also aid you with being decisive and consistent, because you will immediately act without having to think about the relevant law. You don’t need to know each Law off by heart, but you need to know where to find it in the Law book, and know the sanction applicable for an offense under that Law. I got to know the Laws by repeatedly reading the Law book, and still do it to this day. It is also advisable to know the clarifications done by World Rugby…this is when a specific rugby union writes to them regarding a specific law or incident, and asks for some sort of clarification.
  7. Fitness: Your fitness will get tested on an annual basis, sometimes more than once in a season. The fitter you are, the better you will be…you want most of the oxygen going to your brain during a game, not your muscles! You need to be able to keep up with the game and be the first person at a tackle, so that you can manage the players or apply appropriate sanctions for transgressions.

I think most important before you take to the field for your 1st game is to ensure you are in control of things totally in your hands – Law knowledge and fitness. The rest will come with time…also important to realise that just as with everything else in life, even if you are super fit and know the laws 100%, you might still not be able to do this, because you need to be able to apply your knowledge on the field, you need to make split-second decisions…if you can’t do that, refereeing is not for you.

If you read this and are keen to become a referee, contact your local rugby union and request to speak to the Referee Manager. This person will be able to explain what you need to join up.

Also feel free to visit for more on South Africa’s top referees and some Law discussions and applications.

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