Monday, 27 September 2021

The strange case of the drunken rugby ref

I experienced some rather interesting events on Friday evening. I went to watch my son play in an under-10s rugby tournament in neighbouring South London. His club sent a squad of two teams to compete, and although we've been to many such events, this was the first I'd been to on a Friday evening, also the first since the pandemic. Last season was fractured, so there weren't any tournaments, and the players are now a little bit behind in their progression along the contact pathway. As a result, the first games were a little scratchy as they got used to playing against other clubs again. It's also fair to say some the refereeing was a little patchy as coaches who hadn't controlled matches for some time adjusted to the new age groups rules. But it got better as everyone got back into the swing.

Where things got interesting was at the end of the evening after my son had finished; we went over to watch the other team from the club play their last match. They were playing a team from the host club, being refereed by a coach also from the host club. I've seen many games of youth rugby union over the years, going back before my son was even born, but this was the most ridiculous spectacle I've ever seen. It's true I'm not entirely neutral here, this was my son's club playing, but the referee completely lost control of the game. By the second half he was no longer bothering to call the tackles when his team were in possession, causing the contact area to become a melee. Instead of the tackled player presenting the ball properly and the defensive team resetting in an onside position the contact started to resemble a kind of rolling maul with players joining from all directions. Crucially he was also failing to deal with foul play, which meant the kids were starting to take matters into their own hands, a pivotal moment coming when a player from my son's club decided to punch an opposition player who had just pole axed him with a reckless high tackle ignored by the increasingly indifferent referee.

I don't wish to justify the indiscipline from the players, but they are kids, and there is a serious responsibility on the referee to stay in control. The coaches from my son's team, some of whom are highly experienced referees, were trying their best to encourage the referee to pay attention to the rules, to start calling the tackles again and take control. They weren't abusive, but they were trying to remind him of the rules, and to keep everyone safe. Instead he appeared increasingly perplexed and distanced from the unfolding chaos, he repeatedly glanced in the direction of his coaching colleagues, shrugging his shoulders as if he wasn't sure what to do whenever he was challenged to follow the game. It was also clear some of his coaching colleagues were aware he was struggling, but they appeared conflicted over whether to intervene.

Generally, I'm not one for undermining referees, but this was a safeguarding risk, the referee was no longer performing his function. If my son had been playing, I would have removed him from the game for his own safety. There could be many reasons for the loss of control; tiredness may have caused him to lose interest, he may have been inexperienced or poorly briefed on the age group match rules, there may have been some subconscious bias towards foul play by kids he knows, or maybe he simply struggled to delineate the role of coach from referee. However, I have a strong suspicion that he was under the influence of alcohol, and that contributed to his loss of concentration. Why? Well, as the game ended one of the opposition coaches overheard me saying the referee should have been replaced, and came over to remonstrate, loud and lairy as he was, he made no sense as he was completely pissed. He swayed around in front of me with an empty pint glass in his hand, till another parent suggested he might want to go away and calm down. It would be untrue to suggest all the host coaches were pissed, that was definitely not the case, but I'm not the only person who was present with suspicions about the flailing referee's sobriety.

I know my son's club is taking action in regards ill-discipline, and I understand there will be a letter sent to the host club about the incident, but I suspect the popular speculation about the referee's sobriety may be passed over in the interests of inter-club relations. By coincidence we met the same club at a different event yesterday, fortunately the incompetent was not required to referee, and the coach who had swayed drunkenly in front of me appeared sober, though our paths never really crossed (I doubt he'd remember me anyway). What the whole thing has impressed on me is that these tournaments (or festivals as they are sometimes called) work best when neutral referees are in place and everyone understands the rules. It may also be the case that holding them on a Friday evening rather than the more typical Sunday morning is a bad incentive for some coaches. 

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