Harlequins scrum-half Karl Dickson could be showing the way to go for pros who are hanging up their playing boots. The game needs more of them to become referees
One of the most significant things to come out of Monday’s A League semi-final at Sandy Park was not the result – a 48-15 win for Exeter Braves over their counterparts from Newcastle – or the fact that the teams took it seriously enough to field a host of first-team regulars.
No, it was the name of the referee at the bottom of the team sheet that would have caught the eye – Karl Dickson, the Harlequins scrum-half who has ambitions to be a whistler. Good on the bloke, I say.
This has to be the way forward. How many times have you heard a commentator claim that referees are guessing at scrum-time or you can’t be a top-flight referee unless you have been a top-class player? At least the garrulous commentator and former England hooker Brian Moore has taken a refereeing qualification.
Surely the authorities should be pushing for former stars to become officials. For the elite officials it is not such a bad gig; decent salary, keeps you fit and you see a bit of the world.
But they are not exactly being bowled over by the rush.
Apart from Dickson, who joined up with the England tour to South Africa in 2012 and has a Premiership title to his name, Richard Haughton – the ex-Saracens and Wasps winger has ambitions to become a ref.
Further afield, another former Saracen, the New Zealander Glen Jackson has refereed at Test level and Alain Rolland played for Ireland before becoming a first-class ref. In the mists of time Boy Louw, the legendary prop, who starred for the 1937 Springboks, was in charge of the first Currie Cup final in 1939 but never officiated in a Test match. And that is pretty slim pickings from all the men and women who have played the game.
Former footballers don’t make the transition but most of the players who retire from the Premiership are so rich they needn’t have to work again. Most professional rugby players, however, do need a job once they retire and they can’t all get coaching posts or work in the media. When you weigh it up, reffing seems a credible option.
Except that very few of them take it up, even though the RFU are sympathetic to fast-tracking recent players because they have empathy, deep understanding of the game and respect of the players automatically. Plus, they don’t need a month on the treadmill to get up to speed.
As Tony Spreadbury, a former Test ref who runs the officials at Twickenham now, said: “We want to encourage any ex-player to take up the whistle, because their game understanding is up there, while their fitness is ready made.” No-brainer really.
Cricket doesn’t seem to have any problem recruiting ex-players to become umpires and former Test players such as Peter Willey and John Hampshire, India’s Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Sri Lankan Kumar Dharmasena and Aussie Paul Reiffel have all done both jobs at the top end of the game.
But in rugby they are thin on the ground and some recent events might give you a clue why. Rugby is probably the hardest sport in the world to referee, everyone has their opinions and some of them are ready to tell you all about them in the most strident way.
At Bath’s recent Premiership game against Saracens a spectator got into referee’s room to have a pop at Greg Garner, presumably about Anthony Watson’s sending off. Nigel Owens has had homophobic abuse hurled at him at Twickenham – the RFU then banned the offenders – and in France in April Oyonnax full-back Silvere Tian was suspended for 14 months after abusing Romain Poite during a Top 14 game after he had been sent off against Grenoble.
As Owens said: “It is impossible to referee a match for 80 minutes and not make at least one mistake.” And don’t the referees know it. They cop it from the fans and anyone who gets to sit near a coaches’ box on match days will know they cop it from that direction as well.
Some of the stuff that goes on in the amateur game is even worse so you can’t blame them if they’re not dancing through hoops to sign up.
“Teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship are our core values and we expect everyone involved in rugby union, whether they are players, coaches, referees or spectators, to uphold these values,” say the RFU. “Match officials are an integral part of the rugby family.” But they might not feel like it sometimes.
But Dickson and Haughton might be role models for the current generation of players. They might not make it to the top of the reffing pyramid like Jackson, Rolland and Louw but at least they are giving it a go. It is easy to lob bottles from the back of the classroom without having to have a whistle in your mouth and make the big calls.
And if any player chirps at the pair asking them if they have ever played the game then they will be able to put them back in their box. They have worn the shirt with distinction and rugby needs plenty more of them.
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