Rugby in essence is a simple game. Dot the ball down over the opposition line or kick the ball through the posts more times than your opponent and you win.
However, the laws that govern the game makes rugby much more complex. Although there are some de facto decisions to be made such as offsides, most of the decisions come from a place of subjectivity.
This means that the job of a rugby referee is extremely difficult. Making the correct call when there are so many facets of the game to look for, which makes refereeing a difficult skill. However, one man who mastered that skill is ex-rugby referee Nigel Owens.
Owens is one of rugby’s and perhaps sports most famous referee. His career spanned over 100 Test matches and included a World Cup Final.
The Welshman’s frank but fair style of refereeing made him a superstar in the sport.
The importance of respect
Owens received respect from players and coaches whenever he stepped foot on a rugby pitch, so he understands the importance of respect in the game especially towards referees.
Although rugby has much to learn from football in many aspects, like player welfare, marketing, one thing it can lord over football is the respect players give to referees.
Owens believes it is a cultural problem that rugby sniffs out early on in players’ careers.
“When kids first come into the rugby environment respect is ingrained into them, it’s coached into them, it’s, it’s taught to them. So, all of that then plays a part in them, respecting the values of the sport and referees”, Owens said.
It is a well-known problem that in football respect for referees is almost non-existent. Owens believes that it may be too late to turn the tide.
“Football does not deal with these issues, and I think unfortunately that ship may now have sailed.”
“But it goes both ways, I have spoken to ex-football referees and when they told me about the way they used to speak to players, there’s no wonder there is no respect”.
Citing process a big help
But what other reasons are there for the difference in how players from each sport interact with referees?
Owens thinks the citing process in rugby has a big part to play.
“In football if you have a player who is abusive to opponents or referees or players who sort of commit an act of foul play in the game VAR may intervene, but then nothing happens to the player, so there’s no strong message going out to change behaviours”
“But in rugby if a player wants to dive and con the referee, and if it’s not dealt with by the referees on the field, for whatever reason, then it will be dealt with through a sighting procedure.”
But rugby does not always get it right and respect is not always there towards referees.
After his sides loss to the British and Irish Lions in the first test last summer, South African Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus posted an hour-long YouTube video, highlighting and criticising the performance of referee Nic Berry.
Naturally this caused problems in the rugby community as it was the first time this type of explicit criticism of a match official had been posted for the world to see.
Owens had a unique view on the situation.
“Its something that we referees get after almost very game, where a coach or a plyer will come up and complain about decisions. But what we haven’t seen is, where there was a video done of it, and every decision scrutinised and got a bit personal as well, which means it crosses a line”.
Erasmus was banned from all rugby activity for two months and suspended from all match-day activities, including coaching and media engagement, until September 30th, 2022.
Berry as a former player would be used to criticism but even so, publicly shaming a person doing their job can have a negative effect on referees. We must remember that they are just people.
However, Owens believes that the best referees must deal with the pressures of the job.
“Every referee is different, but the referees who become the very best are the ones who are able to deal with all the pressure that come with refereeing big international matches.”
“I wouldn’t let it affect my performances or affect the way that I refereed South Africa or one of, Rassie’s teams again.”
This shows why Owens was arguably the best referee of all time. His confidence in his ability to referee a game is unwavering and he never let the occasion get the better of him.
Helping the next generation
I am sure Owens has inspired many of the next generation of rugby referees and now sees his new role in the media as a way to help referees rather than criticise them.
“I’d like to think that I’m explaining why the referee is making a decision rather than criticise the performance of the referee. I never comment on the performance of the referee. I just discuss decisions because it’s important that people and players know what decisions are acceptable and which are not”.
This is extremely important in how rugby can move forward with its standard of refereeing and how referees interact with casual fans and spectators. To have someone of the quality and with the reputation with of Nigel Owens explaining decisions makes a confusing game a lot easier to understand.
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