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The Rugby World Cup showcases the challenging role of a referee in the sport.


To desire the role of a tighthead prop, one must possess a peculiar nature. Playing as a lock requires a specific animalistic mindset, while scrum-halves appear to possess a touch of madness. However, the most undesirable position on the field is that of the referee. This is evident as the number of referees is decreasing globally, and various unions, such as those in England, New Zealand, and Australia, have launched campaigns to attract more individuals to take on this role. It is not an appealing role to take on. In the World Cup, referees have two main responsibilities: managing the game and taking the blame from the losing team.

World Rugby has enlisted the help of a data science and monitoring company to increase protection for their referees against online abuse. However, it is likely that the only real way for them to be safe is to avoid the internet altogether. Following the semi-finals last weekend, Ben O’Keeffe and Angus Gardner became trending topics online. While players, coaches, media, and analysts scrutinize their decisions, it is the general public who tend to criticize them the most. O’Keeffe was met with loud boos before the start of the second semi-final, and there are already unfounded allegations circulating about Wayne Barnes having a vendetta against South Africa in the upcoming final.

Reworded: It has always been a difficult task, especially with the rise of ref-baiting as a popular activity on social media and coaches publicly sharing hour-long videos criticizing performances and accusing referees of “unconscious bias”.

According to O’Keeffe, nowadays you must be prepared to face criticism. It’s best to hope for luck and try to get through a full 80 minutes without being labeled as racist for calling an offside or receiving a death threat for missing a bad throw-in. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change.

The first game of Test rugby sparked controversy over the referee’s decisions. In March 1871, England and Scotland faced off, with the Scots ultimately winning the game thanks to a scrum near the English goal line resulting in the first try in Test rugby. However, the English team firmly believed that Scotland’s scrummaging was against the rules and wasted no time in disputing with the referee, Hely Hutchinson Almond.

Years later, Almond admitted that he was unsure if the scrum was legal or not. Understanding the events in the midst of a scrum was nearly impossible, but he still made a ruling based on the fact that the English team caused such a commotion. He stated, “When an umpire is uncertain, I believe it is justified to rule against the team that causes the most disturbance.” Scotland successfully converted and won the game by one point. This was the first valuable lesson in Test rugby – avoid angering the referee. Even 150 years later, England is still striving to master this concept.

English referee Karl Dickson oversees the scrum between France and Italy at the World Cup

Rugby union is unique compared to other sports and has always been so. Almond stated that due to the free-flowing nature of the game, the referee is able to detect and punish most instances of unfair play, similar to how an umpire can in cricket. However, the nature of rugby does not allow for this.

The laws are extremely complex and difficult to understand, with a length of 163 pages, it could even be used as a physical barrier against a charging Springbok prop. The rules governing the game are intricate and not easily seen, similar to the inner workings of a Swiss watch. For example, the scrum is so confusing that it is now used to describe any disorganized and chaotic group.

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There are a total of 11 pages dedicated solely to the laws governing the timing, binding, and positioning of the 16 individuals involved. The referee’s role is to monitor multiple aspects simultaneously, many of which may be out of their line of sight. In the past, it was believed that players could regulate themselves, but over time, the most skilled and accomplished players have been those who can manipulate and exploit the laws to their benefit. Nearly everyone is attempting to gain an advantage by bending the rules, but some are more successful than others.

Therefore, the factors involved in refereeing rugby are inherently subjective. This is due to the fact that it relies on interpretation and can vary depending on one’s perspective. Fortunately, World Rugby has abandoned the idea of trying to attain any objective truth through video analysis. This only led to prolonged delays as individuals argued over what was being shown on the large screen.

The success of the game relies on the mutual understanding that the referee is acting with integrity, despite the possibility of making errors. It is also acknowledged that two individuals may have differing interpretations of a single scrum. As stated by Almond in the past, there must be a level of sincerity involved, otherwise the game loses its purpose.

Source: theguardian.com