Greg Garner: 'I wouldn't recommend any referee to go there'
Rassie and ROG may sound like a comedy duo from 1990’s children’s Saturday morning TV, but the tumult which this pair of leading coaches have created in recent times is far from funny.
Scrutiny by social media rarely produces moderate, middle-of-the-road reaction but it is fair to say that the Springboks’ director of rugby plus the Munsterman in charge of Top 14 outfit La Rochelle have polarised opinion like few before them.
Rassie Erasmus and Ronan O’Gara’s mutual target – almost needless to write – is the referee. Not one specific whistle-blower, but seemingly anyone unfortunate enough to be in charge on a day when their teams lose.
Their methods differ, with O’Gara spewing invective from the touchline and in the immediate aftermath of the match while Erasmus wages social media war via through online video clips which combine sarcasm with slo-mo replays of decisions with which he disagrees.
Both coaches have recently been sanctioned by their governing bodies – with O’Gara’s current ten-week ban being his fourth of the year. However, there is no indication that these repeated trips to the beak and resulting spells on the naughty step will lead either man towards a Road-to-Damascus moment when it comes to their treatment of referees.
Meanwhile, followers of the sport are aligned in two distinct camps. On one hand those who protect rugby union’s traditional values and believe in respecting the referee castigate this pair of repeat offenders and cannot understand how Erasmus’ latest two-week ban is so lenient.
This group cites not only the immediate impact felt by the likes of Nic Berry and Wayne Barnes – whose family allegedly last week received online threats in the wake of him getting ‘the Erasmus treatment’ – but also collateral damage being done to lower levels of the sport where referee recruitment and retention is a pressing issue.
At the other end of the spectrum a vocal group believe Erasmus in particular is doing his sport a service. In their opinion refereeing standards are unacceptably low and by pointing this out loudly and publicly he is helping to drive them upwards. In addition, this group believes top officials – including those in World Rugby’s top tier – are immune from sanctions when they put in a sub-standard display and that this situation needs to change.
Greg Garner was a high-profile referee whose career encompassed over 100 English Premiership games plus 40 in Europe and 16 test matches before he spent four years as the Pro-14’s Elite Referee Development Manager. He is therefore ideally placed to address the questions raised by Erasmus’ supporters.
“I strongly disagree with those who say there is no accountability and this is the best way to drive up refereeing standards,” he said.
“You only have to look at this current period leading up to a World Cup to see that 18 referees have been given matches. Only 12 of them will get to France 23 – and that process is all about performance assessment.
“If you go back to the last World Cup, some very experienced international referees didn’t make the final cut because in the eyes of World Rugby they weren’t performing well enough at the time, so I really struggle to see how there’s no consequences?
“I’d say referees spend 50 per cent of their time reviewing performance and the other half working on skill development to get better. Their games are closely looked at by coaches, managers and selectors with every decision around key pillars of the game like set-piece, foul play, space, breakdown being scrutinised.
“There are then referee selectors working for World Rugby, EPCR, the Premiership and the United Rugby Championship whose job is all about reviewing performance and putting this into their selection choices.”
The clear mistake made by the officials at Twickenham last Saturday which allowed Eben Etzebeth to gather a loose ball and score despite being on the ground was not the subject of an Erasmus video, but his supporters believe that mistakes like this should result in officials responsible being immediately ‘punished.’
Garner responds to this by drawing a parallel with the treatment of players.
“Even world-class players sometimes make mistakes, or don’t perform to the level they want to. Teams win and teams lose, but these world-class players more often than not still get selected for the next game. Why? Because they are the best in the world at what they do.
“It’s the same with referees. For instance, Wayne Barnes is one of the all-time greats, he has over 100 test matches to his name and is maybe the best in the world at the moment. So for people to say he should be dropped when they think he has made a mistake is very short sighted.
“A referee might make hundreds of good decisions which they are never credited for but he or she is always criticised for a mistake. It is very different for a player – when they miss a tackle or a kick at goal that clip rarely finds its way to social media, instead it is the brilliant play with which he or she later scores a try.”
Critics have voiced concerns that referees may be reluctant to take charge of games involving Erasmus for fear of experiencing the same post-match tribulations that have hit the Barnes family. Leaving the worst extremes of social media to one side, Garner believes this is unlikely.
“You will always be nervous knowing you are about to referee a big match involving a leading side,” he said.
“There is then an extra edge when you know added pressure will be put on you by a particular coach during or after a match, and in my experience that really drove you on to give the best performance you possibly could.
“I don’t know anyone who would say: ‘I don’t want to referee this team because their coach will be mean to me afterwards.’ That’s your job as a referee and you’ve got to rise to that challenge.
“Social media is a minefield that has developed over the last decade. I never had to deal with it when I was refereeing as I never went on it, but for sure it is a place where opinions can be expressed without recourse.
“If you search on social media looking for pats on the back you might find one – but you’ll find hundreds of examples of the reverse of that. I wouldn’t recommend any referee to go there, it isn’t helpful to your mental health to see someone having a go at you and being very personal.”
Garner believes rugby union’s governing bodies need to establish a clear, fast-paced process which leaves no-one in any doubt about the consequences of breaking the agreed behaviour code.
“When Rassie put that video out during the Lions series in late July 2021 it took until mid-October for World Rugby to ban him,” he said.
“If you put the sport into disrepute by creating negative press around its officiating or doing anything that goes against the participation agreements all teams sign prior to the launch of each competition, you should immediately face the consequences.
Everyone would then know that if you go to social media or the press to criticise the referee you will instantly get an automatic ban of known length.
“I thought the French Federation showed some really strong governance in how they dealt with O’Gara. He was one game back from a six-week ban, broke the rules again and immediately got an additional ten weeks.”
RugbyPass has also gone to the sport’s grassroots to question if behaviour seen at the top level is reflected lower down and – as critics of Erasmus and O’Gara claim – whether this then creates an issue for those administering, playing and officiating the recreational game in amateur clubs and schools.
The Warwickshire Society of Referees has around 35 active whistlers and according to Secretary Ian Roberts, maintaining discipline on the pitch and in the behaviour of coaches, spectators and parents towards match officials is a very big focus at recreational level in England.
And he has no doubt that situations encountered by his county’s referees are very much shaped by what goes on at international level and in the Premiership.
“It definitely does impact,” he said, “although I’m pleased to say we don’t have as much of a problem as some other referees’ societies around England.
“Match official abuse is being cracked down upon from the top as this is seen as providing an example which will cascade down the levels.
“For instance, our society recently was shown a video with some examples of awful behaviour by Premiership players to help us train referees in how to stamp it out.
“People also now seem to think it is OK to stand on the sideline and shout and scream at the referee for 80 minutes. We’ve recently had to deal with an issue where a young referee was left bitterly upset and disillusioned by this sort of incident.
“Perhaps as a result of the introduction of the TMO and endless replays of everything from multiple angles, rugby has developed a blame culture which doesn’t allow anyone to make a mistake any more.
“Not too many years ago, when we just had a referee and two touch judges, if the officials got most things right, they were seen to have a pretty good game. A referee can make around 400 decisions in a game and everyone now seems to seek 100 per cent accuracy, with anything less quickly being jumped on.
“While we in Warwickshire have covered over 95 per cent of adult games this season, we are doing that with some referees doing two or even three games across a weekend and we don’t appoint to all the age-group games played by our clubs or schools.
“We need more members – we’re really lucky with the quality of the people we have – but anything that discourages people from refereeing will quickly create a big problem.”
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