The Ref Zone
Crossing the Rubicon
Rowly Williams,
May 17, 2012
Referee Glen Jackson puts a player 'on report' with a white card, Hurricanes v Sharks, Super Rugby, Yarrow Stadium, New Zealand, April 6, 2012
Former Saracens fly-half and now referee Glen Jackson issues a white card during the Hurricanes' Super Rugby clash with the Sharks last month © PA Photos
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As another season draws to an end, so somewhere does a playing career. So will the next Glen Jackson please stand up!

One of the benefits of doing what I do is seeing things from all angles. Coaching the coaches, mentoring Premiership players who wish to be coaches and working with referees and referee educators to help put TheRefZone programmes together. What I'm not seeing much of is the player who says, "Right, it's refereeing for me next". Now I'm not saying it's not happening but perhaps not in the numbers required, even at the club/community level of the game.

At the top end there's certainly not a wave of ex-players queuing up to follow Glen Jackson's lead. Glen, you may remember, was a stand-out player for Saracens in the Premiership who went into a fast track scheme back home in New Zealand, where now, in just his second full season of 'top-end' refereeing, he manages Super Rugby matches and will find himself at the IRB Junior World Cup in South Africa next month. So what does it take to cross over the Rubicon?

The transition from player to official invariably means, in the first instance, becoming an entry level referee. Switching from one to the other may be natural for some, but much harder work for others. Finding the ability to manage the players as well as the match comes with the experience, but some homework as you develop will not do any harm. 'Be yourself' is a phrase that people often repeat, and there is much truth in this, however, if as a player you found yourself always questioning the referee or struggling to communicate with your team mates then you've got some work to do.

As a player the demands were relatively simple. Compete within the laws of the game, carry out your role and give your best and beat the opposition. As a referee it's a little different - let's look at just some of your roles and responsibilities. Full knowledge of the laws of the game, match management, player management (including player safety), conditioning levels to at least equal to that of the level of the match you're officiating in and a high level of communication skills (with players and other officials). I think it's fair to say this only scratches the surface and is the MINIMUM that is expected of a good referee.

Simply saying 'manage the match well' does not do it justice as it includes a whole raft of sub components, such as the set pieces. These in their own right incorporate several sub areas of management. The formation of the set piece, application of the law regarding the set piece, safety issues for players, decisions to be made, any penalties to be awarded, informal interactions with players and preventative refereeing or refereeing off the ball.

Recent studies showed that in identifying key skills, there are five key cornerstones to best performance for a rugby union referee:
+ Knowledge & application of the laws
+ Contextual judgement
+ Personality & management skills
+ Fitness, Positioning & Mechanics (of movement)
+ Psychological Characteristics of excellence

Sounds pretty impressive - and it is. Areas such as 'contextual judgement', whilst sounding very theoretical, is used in a practical way every second that you are refereeing. The decision not to make a decision (calling 'play on') is a judgement based on the actions you see, assess and act on all within the context of the event.

"To make the transition you need to be yourself, do your laws homework, recognise when to not officiate, communicate well and be above all be consistent."

A recent UEFA study showed football referees made an average of 137 decisions and 60 'non decisions' in a euro tournament. In rugby union we can probably treble the non-decisions. Depending on the level of the match, we can take an average of 12-20 penalties awarded in a match, 15 scrums and lines-out and on paper that's only about 50 or so decisions to make. Simple. But that's not how it works.

A match does not function on only 50 'actual' decisions. With teams between them making about 150-200 tackles per match there's potentially that amount of decisions to make, but we don't see that many because other decisions are being made almost by the second internally by the referee and 'preventative refereeing' kicks in.

'Roll away', 'stay on your feet' and 'use it or lose it' are all phrases which help the match flow. And as a player you would have appreciated this from a referee I dare say.

Writing in 2008*, Adrian Panozoo, at the time the national umpiring development manager for the Australian Football League, reported that a player who had maybe 100 AFL matches behind him had a good foundation for umpiring - empathy with players and an ability to manage their emotions when penalised.

On the other hand, he would have to stop himself from thinking too much as a player and moving to a position he would have occupied for a pass or run, instead he had to look at where he needed to run as an umpire and have an overview of the game.

In addition, a new umpire had to resist the temptation to 'let things go'. A free kick is still a free kick and the match/player management comes in as to how the decision is communicated to the players.

Panozoo concluded that their best umpire at the time was actually a gardener by trade, but he was assertive, confident and consistent and the players therefore all liked him. So there you go, to make the transition you need to be yourself, do your laws homework, recognise when to not officiate, communicate well and be above all be consistent.

* The Sport Official in Sport & Practise 2008

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