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Rugby: A culture of respect?

Eleanor Curtis

Sunday, 26 November 2023

Following the recent Rugby World Cup, there has been an increase in discussion about the role of the referee. For a sport sometimes famed for the interpersonal respect demonstrated by players and coaches alike, the criticism of referees is surprising, and perhaps symptomatic of changes within the sport.

Invented in 1823, rugby has remained a globally popular sport for 200 years. The game is regulated by many old and convoluted laws, and each match is governed by an on-field referee. The referee is respected; they manage the game like a teacher would manage a class. Players will address referees with deference, accept their decisions graciously, and allow them to advise on and guide the direction of play. The most recent Rugby World Cup has, however, called this status quo into question.


Held in France, with the final occurring on the 28th of October, this year’s men’s World Cup title was retained by the South African side, who clung onto their precarious title with a 12-13 scoreline against New Zealand. They had previously beaten England and France to get to the final.


In the quarter final, played on the 15th of October, there was a similarly narrow scoreline, with the victors beating the vanquished by only one point (FRA 28-29 RSA). This match sparked debates over the quality of refereeing in the competition, with Ben O’Keefe of New Zealand being criticised for slow and inconsistent decisions. This came to light after an early moment in which he stopped play due to a slap-down by Eben Etzebeth, disrupting the flow of the play as France were still in possession of the ball. Head Coach of Les Bleus claimed that this incident was ‘key’ in allowing the Springboks to equalise and eventually win the match. O’Keefe has been criticised by French captain Antoine DuPont, who said in a post-match interview that the referee was ‘not up to the challenge’ presented by the match.


O’Keefe also presided over the World Cup semi-final, in which South Africa took victory from English hands, with the Springboks leading for a mere 2 and a half minutes and closing the game at 15-16. Given the close nature of their knock-out encounters, it is possible that referee decisions allowed them to gain these slight advantages, with missed penalties and the slowing of match speed brought about by new laws and inconsistent mastery of others.


The final match of the cup was refereed by the Englishman Wayne Barnes, who showed the first recorded red card in a final to Kiwi player Sam Cane for a high tackle. This required the use of the Television Match Officials or TMOs, a relatively new entity which exists to review the escalation of a yellow card to a red card in an isolated environment away from the field. A yellow card automatically incurs a penalty of 10 minutes off pitch, during which, if signalled by the on-field referee, the off-field officials will deliberate if a red card is needed. Therefore, decisions are removed from the field, potentially leading to a breakdown of respect on field. There was another incident in the final where the TMOs were involved in the disallowance of All Black’s Aaron Smith’s try, following a knock on. The TMOs only have the right to look back two phases, thus missing the broader context of Kiwi possession for four phases in the run up to the try. Since the final, this try has been reviewed and World Rugby have conceded that the disallowance was unlawful, and the try should have stood. This potentially could have led to a kiwi victory.


Following the final, Wayne Barnes, an esteemed referee with an extensive international career of 111 tests, has received threats against his life for the decisions he made on the field, and their potential to change the outcome of the match. Ben O'Keefe has received similar threats following his involvements in the RSAs two other knockout matches.


These situations draw into question the very DNA of Rugby: has the culture of respect degraded so much that referees are targeted and blamed for their decisions, even after the players have left the field? For those of us who are interested in rugby, it is unnatural to see this level of impolite conduct. Therefore, we must question the direction of the sport. In further questioning, should the TMO system be retained, despite arguments that it causes more problems than it solves? This level of discussion following the end of a competition is unprecedented, and surely something must change for the sport to continue its legacy as the game that we know and love.

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