Unexpectedly, World Rugby has bitten the bullet. As Bob Dylan might say “the times they are a-changin’.”
In a positive move, which should benefit the game as a whole in the medium to long term, the governing body is opening its coffers to resource the referee function to a greater extent than up to now. Change indeed.
For far too long the Elite Referee Manager at World Rugby, has been left to paddle his own canoe, a near-impossible job on a global basis. Joël Jutge, over the last several years, has proven, by some distance, to be the best person to have occupied the position.
Now he will have the support of the recently-advertised positions of World Rugby-employed referee coaches, one each in both the women’s and the men’s game; these new roles will be supported by a talent identification manager. While it’s a welcome initiative, it does seem somewhat light, needing at least one more coach. But it’s a start and it can only grow.
So, what is the function of a referee coach? Simply put, it is all about performance improvement. If you hark back to your driving test days, you can imagine the coach as your driving instructor and the performance reviewer as the guy who passed or failed you. Not everybody can do it, there is just a handful who have the ability. It will not be easy to attract the right people, which is the fundamental key to the success of the strategy. Failure here will do nothing but waste money, the right structure needs the right people.
Assuming that the right people are found, there is a real opportunity to deliver the much elusive consistency in decision-making, with all union referee departments backing up World Rugby’s template in their own coaching of potential elite referees. Mixed messaging has always proved damaging.
Gerry Thornley rightly described Leinster v Munster as a cracker. It was also clear that Ulster referee Chris Busby has benefitted from his time at the World Cup as assistant referee. Having worked with the top referees, and with Jutge, over the past two months, he has learned a lot. He performed well and confidently, with generally good communication marred somewhat by over-explaining, but that’s not a difficult fix.
And we need the likes of him in the game. The coaching initiative gives World Rugby the opportunity to put much-needed, over-due pressure on unions who have failed to put talented officials into the system. Scotland and Wales (now Nigel Owens-less) are two serious long-term cases in this regard; with South Africa, once an officiating powerhouse, not far behind.
Between these three unions, there is only South Africa’s Jaco Peyper, who, at 43, will hardly be a contender for the next World Cup. It’s an unacceptable position and seriously narrows the appointment options available to World Rugby for key international matches. Currently, it’s well nigh impossible to forecast a strong panel of referees who will compete for the 12 places in Australia, four years hence.
Adding to the problem of getting high-calibre people into the role are the chilling social media posts, death threats and vicious attacks, targeting referees and their families. Wayne Barnes and other elite officials have spoken of these which, unsurprisingly, are having an effect on recruitment. If this level of terrifying abuse comes with the territory, who would be bothered to sign up?
It is happening to officials in every sport. Soccer obviously, but Gaelic football’s excellent Maurice Deegan has also spoken of similar intolerable stuff. It is beyond any understanding how the laws of the land allow these to be posted online, under the guise of anonymous pseudonyms. Social behaviour and culture are rapidly declining and it’s not beyond the imagination that one lunatic might decide to attempt to follow through on one of these anarchic vile threats.
Then there’s the bunker, which was far from being a rip-roaring success at the World Cup. I am unsure what influence Jutge, and his new referee “department” will have on its future, but it’s astonishing to learn that it will very likely be used for the Six Nations. The Southern Hemisphere unions are strong advocates of the system which transfers crucial red card decisions to a person who is far less qualified than the referee to make the call.
The vast majority of the TMO-bunker group have never refereed an international match and yet they are handed this massive responsibility – that is incomprehensible to many observers. Those unions who would like to see the bunker buried for good, need to say it loudly, silence will simply facilitate its acceptance.
French referee Mathieu Raynal has done us a service by openly discussing the bunker. Like many, he feels that its introduction into the RWC was rushed. He also speaks to the fact that he has to give a red card without being able to fully explain the decision. Allied with that, the process deprives the spectator or TV viewer of insight into how the decision is arrived at; whereas before they could follow his thinking as he studied the replays, and communicated the outcome. Raynal’s words are worth heeding.
Those “in favour” of this debate have argued that the bunker will reduce stoppages and be more accurate. Well, the latter has certainly not been delivered, leaving us with only one question: Is a few minutes of occasional delay not worth it? A small price to pay for putting these vital red card calls back in the hands of the referee – which is surely where they belong?