“Open Your Eyes Ref!!” The Impossible Visual Task of Refereeing

This week’s article is a contribution from Grant Van Velden. 

Grant van Velden is a High Performance Sport Scientist at the Centre for Human Performance Sciences at Stellenbosch University. He has a keen interest in the influence of sports vision and decision making training on the performance of athletes. He has worked with Australian rugby stars James O’Connor and Quade Cooper, Springbok’s Juan de Jongh, Gio Aplon, Elton Jantjies, Morne Steyn & Pat Lambie, the Springbok Sevens team, the SA Rugby Referees Association, the Maties Rugby Referees Academy, Varsity Cup and Young Guns teams. Follow Grant on Twitter: @gvanvelden

Blind mouse

Over the duration of this year’s Super 15, there has been much debate as to the standard of refereeing, let alone this past weekend’s refereeing and TMO performance during the Sharks game. It seemed that elite referees were making some shocking on-field calls that ultimately changed the outcome of a few games. In a World Cup year, this should be the last thing that the rugby public, coaches, and players should be concerned about. Now every rugby supporter is very quick to jump on the “Give the whistle a ref” band wagon when their team is performing poorly and calls just don’t seem to be going the way of their team – I too was one of these frustrated supporters until I began working with a Rugby Referees Academy here in Stellenbosch where I realised that referees actually have it in for them before they even step onto the field.

Let’s take a ruck for example, which is an area of the game which is highly debatable and interpreted differently by different referees of different nations. The amount of law infringements that can possibly be made at a ruck is immense, from players entering the ruck from the side, to not releasing the tackled player on the ground, to holding the ball on the ground, to defenders not staying behind the last mans feet; the list can go on and on. All the time that the ruck is occurring, there is an attacking backline setting up to try and pierce the wall of defenders who are also setting up to try and counter their opponents attack by putting in some bone crunching hits. When the ball finally emerges from the ruck, the referee needs to make sure that the defending backline is not offside while at the same time monitoring whether the attacking backline does not throw any forward passes. He also needs to monitor any foul play such as high or spear tackles by the defending team, all while trying to avoid interrupting play by getting in the way of players but still being able to move into the best possible position to “see” what is happening in front of him. This would all change if the scrumhalf puts in a box kick from the ruck instead of passing it to his flyhalf, where a whole new set of infringements can occur such as attacking players been in front of the kicker, pillar players blocking the defenders access to the kicking scrumhalf; once again the list goes on and on.

From a vision perspective, this is an almost impossible task for one referee to do on his own due to the amount of visual focus areas that the referee is required to focus on during a game. A referee simply cannot give 100% focus to one area without another area suffering – put into a rugby situation; a hooker will not be able to throw straight into the lineout if he also needs to focus on whether his teams flyhalf is standing flat, deep, wide or narrow. And that is asking the hooker to only focus on one other situation on the field and not many other situations as in the case of the referee!!

In my opinion it makes sense that rugby evolves into having more than one referee on the field of play in order to lessen the vision and decision making load that is currently placed onto referees. Referees can then give more focus to specific areas of play if they know that there is another referee on the field who is monitoring the other areas of play that has been assigned to them. One referee may be assigned to monitor the lineout while the other referee monitors the attacking and defensive backlines. A referee on either side of the scrum to monitor binding or early engagements would certainly help to make the scrum contest more even. Many team sports in other disciplines have a number of referees on the field of play during a game – American Football has seven referees, field hockey has two umpires, Aussie Rules has nine umpires. With the game getting faster and faster and the hits becoming bigger and bigger, surely it is time to look at bringing more referees onto the playing field in order to make sure the game is played fairly by both teams? Stellenbosch University has been using a two referee system (two referees officiating on the field of play, as well as two assistant referees) in their Koshuis Leagues for many years now with great success; the Varsity Cup has successfully trialled the two referee system for the last few tournaments with outstanding success. So maybe it is time to look at such a system and trial it a higher level such as at the Currie Cup.

So my closing thoughts are this: Isn’t it time that rugby moves into an era where having more on-field referees is the norm? Isn’t it time that the skill and precision of the players on the field determines the outcome of a game and not the referee?

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