We speak to young officials with contrasting experiences of abuse. Part of our Too Much, Too Soon series.

Too Much, Too Soon: the strain on young referees

“I was playing on a tour and I reffed the U13 and U15 girls but since then I haven’t reffed and I haven’t got back into it. I lost a lot of confidence with it and the people on the sidelines don’t really help. Like coaches, parents even the players sometimes – it can be quite intimidating, especially as a female.

“I’ve been wanting to get back into it, but just haven’t managed it yet.”

Those are the words of Beth Wilson, from Taunton. A young referee who did her Level Two course in November, she officiated veterans’ games, girls’ county U18s (her age group, at 17) and then she went on the tour. Over that time she grew to feel that commentary from the sidelines got too much.

We are forever discussing if we interact with match officials appropriately, as members of the public. When young officials are involved, the impact of your words can be twice as hard – but as a sport it’s as vital to nurture the next generation of referees as it is players.

Wilson’s friend Ben Pomeroy, another junior ref, has had a slightly different experience. He has whistled up to Level Nine, so everything from U14 to colts, and now adult fixtures for 2nd and 3rd XVs.

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As he says: “It’s interesting sometimes, especially officiating senior fixtures and having that much responsibility. But personally, I thoroughly enjoy it. I like having that control and running the game.”

But can he understand why some, like Wilson, get put off early?

“It can be extremely difficult,” he replies. “Especially with that level of responsibility. But on the pitch you’ve got 31 different opinions – yours and the 30 players. Even then, with games, you’ve got 100 people in the crowd with their opinions.

“Rugby is such a subjective game and normally they’ll voice their opinions. Actually, blocking that out and trying to ignore it is very, very difficult.

“You do get cases where spectators get so vocal that you do get hesitant, you do doubt yourself. And I think that’s what happens to a lot of people do get put off.

“I haven’t had a particularly bad game but you do hear stories of people getting abuse from the sidelines.”

According to Dan Evans, Somerset Rugby’s Young Match Officials co-ordinator: “The YMO programme in Somerset aims to ensure we encourage young people to start refereeing and develop their skills and confidence. The programme takes an individual approach to each YMO to ensure that each referee is given the support they need and are refereeing appropriate fixtures.”

Once YMOs have a number of games under their belt, are confident and comfortable refereeing, then where possible they are allocated a coach to help with advice and act as a sounding board during their development.

Too much too soon

Evans continues: “As the YMO co-ordinator my aim is to ensure that feedback from coaches and mentors is collated, YMOs receive appointments appropriate to their development and to appoint YMOs to suitable events, such as youth county fixtures and junior cup competitions.

“In addition, I aim to ensure myself, the safeguarding officer, sevens co-ordinator, appointments team, training officer and chairman all work in unison to ensure we all work together in the interest of match officials.

“We currently have eight active YMOs in the society, from a range of backgrounds, geographical locations and situations. Several have progressed through the programme and are now refereeing either within the society or in others after continuing refereeing while at university.”

As Pomeroy concludes, we need young referees getting into the game, and spectators and players need to accept that they may get a 16- or 17-year-old ref – and there still aren’t that many across the country. That number rising could help others adjust.

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At the grass-roots level we see games cancelled because of lack of officials and Pomeroy adds: “Turning people away in their best years for getting into it isn’t helping that situation as well.”

For Wilson, she still really enjoys coaching her younger brother. Getting back into the game as a referee can be tough though. Her tutor at college is keen to get her to referee one of their matches and the hope is that she can rediscover her confidence.

You can read our original special report – Too Much, Too Soon – in the current issue of Rugby World magazine.

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