Talking refs

Sat, 24 Nov 2012 09:13
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Refereeing guru Paul Dobson takes a look at the do's and don'ts of communication on the field.

Communication is one of the great feats of our time. It is the age when communication has gone to heights which the world has never known and could not even have conceived of a short while ago.

Everything is now communicable in a flash. Communication has changed the world - and, in its tiny place, the way of refereeing rugby.

Communication is not always a solution. It has done nothing to stop horrible war and crime, and it has produced its own forms of crime and unhappiness. Communication is a good thing only when it is used in a good way.

So, too, in refereeing, communication is a tool that referees have that is good only when it is put to good use. It has, of course, changed in recent times.

In the beginning the referee used his voice. Gradually gestures came in and then in 1884 William Atack introduced the whistle. The whistle and gestures replaced the voice which was used almost solely in admonition.

The referee had a whistle which he could use in different ways that indicated why he wanted to stop (or start) the match. A blind man could tell from a good referee's whistle tone what was happening or about to happen on the field. And the referee had arm and hand gestures - arm out for a scrum, arm up for a try or a penalty and pointing to touch for a line-out or the end of a half. It was a brief vocabulary.

There was also the matter of body language which is still important as an expression of the referee's personality or feelings. A referee could show disapproval through his body language so that a player would know that he was serious and you did not do that again.

Talking on the field was regarded as a bad thing. It was not part of a referee's job to coach players.

Now there is lots of talking. In big games it is even broadcast to the world. Of course a lot of it is good as it aids man management, which is an important part of a modern referee's duties - all those laws, all the pressure of the match and managing 30 excited young men.

Some of the talk is questionable and some of it is criticised as coaching. Those are big discussions.

We are going to question just three little things at this stage.

i. 'I want you ....' Referees often start a sentence like that, especially to front rows. "I want you higher/closer/whatever.' There is also another way if I-ing: "I don't want to see ....'

It's what the game requires, not what 'I' wants. 'I' is not Number 1 in the game. It's a bad way to start.

ii. 'Thank you.' The referee tells the player to get onside, the player goes back and the referee thanks him. Why?

We thank people for doing us a favour. The player is not doing the referee a favour in playing according to the laws. If anybody, it is the player who should be grateful that the referee has saved him from sanction.

iii. Praise and commiseration. Is it really a referee's place to praise a player - for scoring a try, for effecting a turnover - that sort of thing? Is it the referee's place to commiserate with a player who has got something wrong - Bad luck, timing was a bit out, that sort of thing?

Old-fashioned schoolboys would regard ii. and iii. as 'sucking up', which was something reprehensible.

One little story to end.

Ralph Burmeister was a great referee. He refereed Tests from 1949 to 1961. He was the chairman of the Western Province Referees' Society for 25 years. He knew about refereeing, and he certainly was no advocate of talking on the field.

He told a sty against himself of the only time he ever spoke on the field.

It was his last provincial match - Western Province against Border at Newlands, not a hard game. He knew it was his last game and he felt relaxed. Western Province were winning easily and a scrum collapsed. It was not the first scrum to collapse and in those days collapsed scrums were few. Ralph broke the scrum up and spoke his first worlds on a rugby field. He said to the border hooker, Harrison.

Burmeister: Do you know anything about hooking?

Harrison: A damn' sight more than you know about refereeing.

Burmeister: I was refereeing before you were born, sonny.

Harrison: That's your problem, old man.

It was the first time the great referee had spoken and he had got it wrong. It was probably not that he said anything but what he said and the way he said it.