When one of the audience at the Forum asked of the panel whether Coventry ever checked on who the match day officials were when preparing for a game, Scott Morgan’s answer suggested that no only did they do so, but they also did their homework on the referee.
Whilst it was never said, there appeared to be a tacit admission that referees needed to be ‘played’ and knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of a particular referee could, in some instances, prove the deciding factor in a match which is very tight and the difference between the two teams might be, perhaps, just a single penalty. I might be reading too much in into what wasn’t said, but the wry smiles on the night suggest I’m not. Knowing, for instance, that one particular referee has a tendency to penalise scrummaging more than another could, for instance, work in your favour when you are in the opposition’s red area or another might be far more lenient as far as lineouts are concerned, allowing a team to narrow the gap or bunch more than the laws permit. And who’s to blame a team who take’s advantage of such knowledge; isn’t it just part of a team’s thorough preparation? The Cov crowd is pretty unforgiving at times and has a long memory. Often on the messageboard prior to a Saturday game, the referee and his assistants are usually named and, well, as I said before, sometimes crowds can be unforgiving. The point I’m making is, if spectators remember previous matches and the performances of a particular referee, then so too will clubs.
One of the things that annoys a crowd about referees, particularly in our league (National 1), is inconsistency. Referees who penalise a particular offence on one occasion, but let it go the next, tend to create uncertainty on the pitch and frustration off it. Good referees, and I honestly think that we see a lot of good referees at the Butts over the course of a season, talk to the players and explain their decisions. Good communication is vital and certainly Cov crowds are far less likely to get on a referee’s back if they know what it is that the referee is particularly unhappy about. Clear signals, made obvious to the players and crowd alike, tend to avoid confusion, as does a referee who talks regularly to his assistants. Officials who work together, as a team, make for greater consistency.
No one wants a ‘whistle happy’ referee, but one who insists, for instance, on setting and resetting scrums all through the game is never going to please the crowd and as likely as not the game won’t flow. However, a referee who makes his presence felt in the first 15 minutes to the point that players know what can and can’t get away with, is more likely to ensure a more whistle free remaining 65 minutes. Teams quickly realise that if they transgress the laws, they will get penalised. Failure on the part of the referee to punish teams that do transgress results in ill-discipline on the part of individual players and the whole rugby spectacle is ruined. There needs to be a common sense approach and the best referees seems to be able to judge the situation and where appropriate make good use of the advantage rule to keep a game free-flowing.
Coaches inevitably work with their teams to push the limits of the laws, in attempt to gain an additional advantage, making life very difficult for referees and their assistants. Often in scrums and lineouts there are several offences happening at the same time and it is sometimes hard to determine who is most at fault. Refereeing must be a thankless task at times and pressures on referees are immense. Odd mistakes will always occur, wrong decisions which result in points conceded, but I do think that very, very few results are actually determined by poor refereeing. Refs are an easy target, and sometimes we lay the blame squarely on their shoulders when perhaps we should be looking at the weaknesses in our teams.