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Principles of refereeing

02 March 2002

It is too easy to say that a match cannot take place without a referee; the referee does a lot more than just turn up. People need to be aware that there is a difference between a match and the game. The game is rugby union, whereas the match is the fixture in front of us on a particular day. Players, coaches, administrators and match officials have a responsibility for the match and the game. We all need to work together to make the game better for all who are involved.

There are Laws of the Game, under which we must operate, but they are not the be all and end all. The Laws are there to be used in the context of the match being played. Indeed, if every Law was applied on every occasion, there would be very little continuity in any match. Coaches can be inventive within the Laws, but it is more difficult than taking the easy way to work outside them. The latter approach will not help the game in the long term. Likewise, the referees need to be aware of what the players are trying to do so that they can referee by taking into account the attitude and objectives of the players.

So how do referees approach the matches at which they officiate?

The first introduction to referee training will refer to the Principles of Refereeing. These are:
1. Safety 2. Equity 3. Laws of the Game

The order of these principles defines the priorities for refereeing. Referees will ensure that safety takes precedence over anything else; they must never condone foul play by ignoring incidents that could bring the safety of others into doubt.

They will referee within the Laws without favour. It is a very rare occurrence for referees to be biased, but how often do you hear members of a team (usually the one that lost) saying that referees have been biased? With the Laws of the Game being so complicated, together with the need to manage the players, it is very difficult for referees to think of anything other than the task in hand; they rarely have the time to think about favouring one team.

What referees do try to do is to manage the match for the enjoyment of all participants. They will do this by making decisions that reward constructive, legal play and punish negative, illegal play. They have to decide what is acceptable and what isn't. Referees are encouraged to have a vision for the game they would like to referee. They will behave in a way that rewards those who support this vision and will work to �enlighten' those who work against it. They will try to communicate this vision to the teams, before, during and after the match. The referees will need to be clear on why things happened not just what - and then tell the players. They can let the captains know what is going wrong and right and tell them about the players who are approaching the limits of acceptability. The referee should also listen to the players; it can help the management of the match.

Every match is important; the 3rd XV match on the back pitch is just as important as a Twickenham international. Each involves teams of players who have the right to take part and enjoy a competitive game. Recently there has been a reduction in the number of players who are playing the game. If matches are refereed well the players are more likely to stay in the game. We need trained referees to service the needs of the clubs and more people need to realise that the referee's role is a vital element for the development of the game.

If you are interested in taking up refereeing, please contact the RFU National Referee Centre of Excellence on freephone 0800 834551 or email