Sports Gazette

The sports magazine brought to you by the next generation of sport writers

In defence of Karl Dickson: Football’s problem is not rugby’s

Most sane people could have told you that the hiring of ex-football referee Mark Clattenburg as a club referee analyst was not a wise idea.

Nottingham Forest thought otherwise, in a move that is not particularly out of line with their recent erratic behaviour. The first role of its kind within professional football, it was nothing short of bizarre and ultimately pointless.

Clattenburg has since resigned from his post in the wake of the extraordinary outburst from the Forest’s X account, which has been publicly slammed by the likes of Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher.

The inevitable shockwave caused from that post has now seeped its way into arguments within rugby union. Whilst refereeing has often been hotly contested within the modern game, the most recent discourse is just nonsensical.

The nonsensical discourse

There had been a few minor grumblings at the appointment of ex-Harlequin Karl Dickson as referee for Quins’ Big Summer Kick-off clash against Northampton Saints, but nothing of any real substance.

Unfortunately for Dickson, Nottingham Forest’s post was released six days before the match, launching a scathing attack on the integrity of referees and most importantly the conflicts of interest they hold.

Suddenly, some members of the rugby media latched on to the idea that this was now an issue in a sport that has rarely questioned refereeing conflicts of interest previously, especially in domestic rugby.

We can’t forget that Dickson previously came under minor scrutiny when refereeing Harlequins against Bristol back in 2022, in a game where Quins’ Joe Marler aimed derogatory comments towards an opponent.

The fact is however, Dickson has refereed Harlequins on multiple occasions and his integrity has remained completely intact.

So why now? The downright inadequacy of one sport’s ability to referee a game does not mean that it is now a universal issue.

As a result of the indignation that ensued, Dickson had the spotlight on him burning so bright that any mistake would be ripped apart by those on the opposing side of the argument.

Which is exactly how it unfolded at Twickenham, and the media did itself no favours in the coverage of that. We applaud the words of the now retired referee Wayne Barnes on tackling the abuse they receive, yet continue to behave in a fashion which encourages it.

It was actually another ex-Quin in Ugo Monye who stirred the pot with no regard for Dickson whatsoever live on TNT Sports.

As you can see in the clip below, he asks Danny Care what he thought of “the potential second yellow card that he didn’t get from his old teammate Karl Dickson.” A comment equivalent to pouring petrol on a fire.

The incident itself

Care had already been yellow carded for a head-on-head collision with Courtney Lawes, and rightfully so.

The next call not to dismiss Care for infringement at the breakdown after a Saints line-break was looked at methodically not just by Dickson, but via contribution from his entire support team, including Television Match Official Andrew Jackson.

The issue in question was obviously contentious, but is Dickson ‘saving his mate Danny’ really how we’re going to look at it?

Whether it was the right call or not, it does not equate to impugning someone’s integrity on the basis it was in favour of his old side. So what if he reached for his card? He clearly changed his mind based on review.

Embed from Getty Images

Dickson sent three Harlequins players to the sin-bin throughout the course of the game, all on separate occasions. If you cannot win a game with a player advantage for 30 out of the full 80 minutes, you clearly do not deserve to take anything from it.

Northampton Saints Director of Rugby Phil Dowson could have moaned to the media about it, but he didn’t. Gracious in defeat, his response to the decision in the post-match press conference was of a standard where we should be:

“Karl [Dickson] has had a good look at it, the TMO had a good look at it, and if they felt it wasn’t a second yellow, it wasn’t a second yellow.”

The correct response

The RFU’s defence of Dickson’s decision was fully supportive but should not have been necessary in the first place. It feels all too much like PGMOL chief Howard Webb apologising for another diabolical decision from the relatively new Video Assistant Referee.

Where football is currently failing, rugby has the chance to get it right. Dickson himself was a prevalent part of World Rugby’s Whistleblowers documentary released in February, which highlighted the severity of abuse that referees receive daily.

The documentary, based around the World Cup, was a remarkable step by World Rugby in defence of its referees.

Even more significantly, we have now seen World Rugby successfully prosecute an Australian native for their abuse of the TMO from England vs Samoa.

It is therefore quite astounding that, having been granted a compelling insight into how these aspects affect Dickson’s life, the current consensus is to assume he’s thrown a game in favour of his old team!

Dickson makes it clear in the documentary how much the abuse he receives impacts him on a day-to-day basis. Top-level refereeing is inherently a public-facing job, but that does not make abuse acceptable on any level.

Referees will get things wrong; it is inevitable. No one is perfect. But to assume that it is based on their lack of integrity is one step too far.


  • Ricky Westaby

    Ricky Westaby is the American Football editor for the Sports Gazette. Originally inspired by the Blind Side’s ‘true story’ to get into American Football, learning its dark truths was a crushing reality. However, the passion was already instilled. A QPR fan born and raised in West London, his other main areas of focus will include football and rugby union. @RWestaby_SG