The Roar
The Roar


Referee abuse is eating away at the grassroots of rugby

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Roar Rookie
9th May, 2021
4007 Reads


This weekend has been hard.

Not only because my beloved Ponies lost in a thriller. It was hard because, during and after my match as a volunteer official, I was the subject of verbal match official abuse.

While I do not wish to write a story of ‘woe betide me’, and will certainly not entertain the masses with the comments aimed at me, there must be a way we, as a rugby-loving community, can be better.

Refereeing is the only thing that I am (relatively speaking) good at on a rugby pitch. For many referees, there is either the sense of giving back, of contributing to the game in some way, or for some sneaky pocket change as a junior referee before their own match.

At what point is it still ‘rugby’ that players, coaches, club officials and spectators abuse a match official?

Notwithstanding the vitriol aimed at the professional level of referees as seen in recent weeks across SR-AU and SR-A, that these behaviours even occur face-to-face at a local, volunteer level is disgusting. The excuse of “passion”, or, “I lost control in the moment” is not viable.

What is more concerning is that my story is not an isolated one either. I know of other matches across numerous jurisdictions where referees, both adults and children, are the subject of match official abuse this weekend gone.

In some instances, the club involved have been vocal in their apologies to referees involved; others where there was no way out for the referee except to beat a hasty retreat to the carpark and hope to escape the attention of the remnants of the crowd sinking a tinnie and a snag sanga.


While I, and most other referees, are all for banter and ‘the ironic rugby cheer’, the line that ought not be crossed is seemingly becoming invisible.

Perhaps this is a result of social media, of news outlets giving airtime to unrepentant coaches in both union and other codes looking for a scapegoat, or society losing some of its compassion and ethic around treating sporting volunteers.

I would be battling many other referees for the position to be the first to put my hand up and say “I’m not perfect”, at some point there has to be a clear line in the sand. Many referee associations are at breaking point with a lack of members.

Referee abuse is a leading factor in the loss of referees to our code.

I would suggest at least 40 per cent leave each season due to abuse.


It is little wonder it’s next to impossible to find new talent, let alone retain whomever associations have.

What is the answer? To be honest, there is no clear and simple fix that I can see. Club culture starts at the top and works its way down to on-field leaders.

Jurisdictions must have, pardon the referee terminology, a clear and obvious plan with consequences that will be followed through. Referees must also be courageous and feel supported in reporting the abuse so it can be identified and dealt with.

Wales players in a huddle

Players take part in a training session (Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

Across the ditch, we have seem examples of the Hawke’s Bay competition having a crystal clear match official abuse policy after repeated incidents of match official abuse lead to the withdrawal of refereeing services for a fortnight. Of interest, players, clubs, ground marshals and spectators are ‘rated’ by the referee team for the day. There are severe sanctions for anyone abusing match officials and this is enforced from thr organising bodies down to clubs.

As a rugby community, I implore you as a spectator to place yourself into the footy boots of the volunteer with the whistle and/or flag. These men, women and children are volunteering their time to be involved in the game they love. Often, they are by themselves with no support at the ground due to the nature of refereeing at every ground.

The referee will make errors.

The referee is not perfect.


Until you are willing to try to referee yourself, keep your unhelpful and abusive comments to yourself.

But by all means, help us to “get em’ onside!”