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Referees expect criticism but rugby can do without the witch-hunts

By Paul Smith
Referee Mike Adamson (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Jonny Wilkinson missed around 13 per cent of his kicks at goal while 2.6 per cent of Roger Federer’s serves were double faults and Tiger Woods failed to hit around 30 per cent of greens in ‘regulation’. Even the greatest sportsmen of the last 20 years proved fallible on occasions and when they made their relatively rare mistakes – even on the biggest of sporting stages – there was little more than a raised eyebrow.

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So why is it that the world now cuts match officials so little slack? Sit and watch Twitter with one eye while you next enjoy a big match from the comfort of an armchair and you will see the referee receives a steady stream of criticism. While some of it is well-informed, much is well wide of the mark and at the extreme is offensive and delusional.

The latest victim of this is Scottish international referee Mike Adamson, who was subjected to 48 hours of vehement criticism following the final few minutes of Harlequins’ Heineken Champions Cup win over Castres.

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Rob Kearney and Alfie Barbeary – A Lion and a Wasp
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Rob Kearney and Alfie Barbeary – A Lion and a Wasp

This largely centred on three decisions in the closing stages of the match. All of these proved crucial to the outcome and having looked at them again, it is impossible to argue that Adamson and his colleagues – with TMO Brian MacNeice prominent – got any of the three right.

A wrongly awarded penalty by Adamson was an error of interpretation, a missed forward pass was a case of poor positioning and/or obscured vision while the pivotal try award was (unless TV pictures exist which only MacNeice saw and not the referee) caused by incorrect use of the TMO protocol.

Three errors in ten minutes isn’t great. It cost Castres a place in the last 16, but am I alone in thinking some of the reaction to referee Adamson was disproportionate? As demonstrated above, even the best make mistakes. While I have previously expressed serious doubts about the short-term consequences of fast-tracking ex-players to the top of the refereeing tree, it seems to me that match officials in this social media age are subject to a level of scrutiny and vitriol which is completely inappropriate.

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Before going any further, we have to accept that when you opt to become a match official you accept that a degree of criticism is coming your way. Sport has winners and losers and not everyone is able to deal with defeat without seeking the nearest convenient scapegoat.

In addition, like players and coaches, match officials make mistakes. Good ones make fewer than those further down the tree but it is a fact of sporting life. It always makes me smile when a fourths XV player or junior team coach bemoans the standard of refereeing without appreciating that ‘Sir’ usually performs to a similar level to the players.

The commonest social media response to an officiating error or a string of decisions going against a supporter’s team instantly labels the whistler “useless” or “out of his/her depth” regardless of any number of accurate calls previously made in the match.

Like players and coaches, referees reach their level through a series of strong performances at lower levels. Loads of time and effort goes into training officials, coaching and assessing them on the field and then mentoring them as they progress.

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Those officials that reach the top are not there by accident. They are considered by those who spend their time in assessment, grading, training and development to be best suited to the job.

It is therefore extremely unlikely that they are “useless” and if they seem a little “out of their depth” perhaps it is because (as is sometimes the case for fast-tracked ex-players) they are short of the 20-years’ experience with which the very best, such as Wayne Barnes or Nigel Owens, make things appear so effortless.

Former Ireland boss Eddie O’Sullivan has voiced the opinion that a poor performance by a match official has zero consequences. With Adamson lined up to referee two Six Nations games, he presumably was hinting that last week’s mistakes should see him removed from these prestigious appointments.

When O’Sullivan’s side was struggling at the 2007 World Cup it would be interesting to know if he routinely threatened to drop under-delivering players from the next game (he did, just ask Peter Stringer!). Having the threat of the axe continually hanging over your head in this way would do nothing to help most players and referees are no different.

This is not to say that match officials are above criticism or rational assessment of their performance good and bad. The best way to drive improvement in most walks of life is to identify areas needing work and then look at them with the help of experts. Another key point here is that dishing out some plaudits alongside the brickbats is both helpful and fair.

The confidence of Adamson will have taken a huge hit after Friday night and he will be desperate for a couple of incident-free matches to restore some self-belief as a referee. If an official makes some mistakes, surely support and training and a period of time in which to adapt and improve are required before taking the kind of action O’Sullivan appears to be demanding?

Take a snapshot of the Gallagher Premiership or World Cup officiating teams at four-yearly intervals and it will quickly become apparent that referees have a shelf life. It is not simply a case of reaching the top and then staying there until you are too old, but rather needing to continue to deliver performances of an appropriate standard. Unlike DoR’s, referees are not sacked in a blaze of publicity but usually find themselves ‘managed’ to games of their own level.

Moving to another sentiment regularly expressed by those who are heavily critical of match officials at the top levels, by being paid why should they become ‘fair game’ for limitless criticism from not just their employers and other stakeholders but anyone with a phone and a Twitter account?

Perhaps the biggest concern emanating from this weekend is the knock-on effect that social media’s worst excesses have on behaviour towards referees at lower levels. I recently watched a level seven local derby between two village teams which was an engrossing match that was really well refereed by a 20-year-old official.

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Around ten minutes from time, with one score between the teams, the home side conceded back-to-back penalties. A 50-something supporter of the away team raced to the rail surrounding the pitch and yelled: “How f***ing many, referee?”

He was pointedly ignored and subsequently managed to keep his thoughts to himself. Nonetheless, it made me question what is now considered acceptable behaviour towards match officials and whether social media is playing a part in rugby going to places where it has traditionally vowed to never be seen.

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