By Tom Jones, IRB Regional Development Manager North America and the West Indies
One scenario: A player attempts an easy penalty kick, from in front of the posts, to secure a win on the last play of the match. The coach watches the player, with fingers crossed for a successful outcome. Emotions rise as the ball is kicked. The referee stands behind the player, knowing that the match is effectively over, and that the kick will decide the outcome.
The kick is weak and poorly directed. It is close, but sails over the left hand post. The referee judges that it has not been successful, and blows for the end of the match.
Three different outcomes: The player receives commiserations from his team mates on account of the missed kick, a pat on the back and an inspirational "Never mind Robert. No worries. It'll be OK next time." The coach is furious that the match has been lost. He chooses not to sit on his emotions for a cooling off period, or to criticise the kicker for inadequate concentration and weak technique. He also decides not to dwell on the fact that in his coaching he has not helped the kicker to prepare for this kind of pressure situation. Rather, he walks towards the referee and, as soon as he is within earshot, hurls derision and invective for what he has decided is a terrible decision that has cost him and his team a victory. The referee is sure of his decision, and comfortable that he has done his best all afternoon. He is headed for the dressing room to review his performance, and to try to prepare to be as good as he can be on his next appointment. But he is then shocked, disappointed and upset to be verbally attacked by the coach and then spectators (who follow the coach's example).
We've all seen this, or a similar scenario happen.
Why do some people not accept responsibility for their own actions?
Why do we treat referees so differently from other people, so often?
When a team plays in a match, it faces multiple challenges. If it accepts and overcomes the challenges, it will win. If it does not overcome the challenges, it will lose.
The need to play well according to a pre-determined plan The ability to react to the changing circumstances of the game The necessity of overcoming the opposition's strengths The requirement of dealing with all the distractions - the crowd, health, travel fatigue, weather, domestic difficulties, field conditions, etc, etc, etc The obligation to accept that the referee will make some decisions which will make you wonder "right or wrong", and to be able to overcome this as merely one of the challenges, notwithstanding.
The best teams accept responsibility for the challenges that the occasion presents. They overcome the weather, the crowd, the pressures, the difficult decisions that the referee will make, and the opposition. They don't complain, and then they usually win.
If they lose, they recognise that the responsibility for the loss lies within themselves. They alone have failed to overcome the challenges that the match has presented. Not someone else. Best teams and coaches do not look for a scapegoat.
The solution lies within. In good preparation, in good practice and in good performance.
The missed kick scenario took place in the eightieth minute. The kick was terrible. It should have split the uprights. It should have taken the decision right out of the referee's hands. But it did not. More significantly, it should not have come down to a final play to decide the outcome. The team - all teams - make mistakes throughout a match, because of poor decision-making, poor skill execution, or poor coaching and preparation. Remember the poor passes or the missed catch that gave away the try; or the weak scrummage that conceded a key possession; the line-out throws which were clearly not straight; or kicking away the ball, not taking advantage of the overlap; or the stupid penalties that were conceded?
In most matches, the referee is refereeing as well as the players are playing, but there have been few occasions, I suspect, when a referee has confronted a player or a coach with criticism of the quality of player performance!
And just in case some players and coaches are wondering ... referees work hard to try to achieve optimal performance, just as they do. They attend training sessions, they work hard to develop a broad understanding of the Game, and its Charter and Laws, and they are assessed and coached. Most actually work on their fitness levels! The International Board has placed equal importance on referee and coach certification and accreditation.
Referees will try to do their part to make a match a successful and a non-controversial event. But let's remember that they - like you - are human, and will - like you - make mistakes. Let's accept responsibility for our own actions, and ask ourselves "...have I overcome the challenges, or have I not".
It has been proven that abuse of referees is a key impediment to recruitment and retention. Rugby will only be as strong as it's weakest link. If we fail to positively encourage all of the Game's components to be as good as they can be, we will all suffer the consequences.