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Rugby referees are quitting. It’s time to show some compassion

Rugby, like all sports, likes to talk about players and coaches “dying by the sword”. This kind of pressure has been ever-present during the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.

Referees in particular felt the heat with the sport’s global governing body World Rugby making a statement criticising referee performances early on in the tournament for “not consistently being of the standard expected of the highest level of the game”.

Research into refereeing in rugby has highlighted the intense demand the role places on individuals, and the heavy psychological load referees face. The result is poor psychological well-being and poor mental health experiences. The man who holds the world record for the most test matches refereed, Nigel Owens, recently gave a powerful interview about his own struggles with mental health.

My current research explores chronic performance-related stress and failure-based depression experiences within elite referees. My early findings suggest that referees are feeling an ever-increasing psychological burden. This increase is associated with a constant exposure to psychological and physical intimidation through social and traditional media, and with it a perceived lack of game-wide support.

Referees are increasingly walking away from the game at all levels. Of increasing concern are the threats of verbal and physical violence that referees are now facing. World-wide, referees are experiencing growing physical threat and psychological trauma.

Coaches are compelled to face the throngs of media after a match and expose themselves to scrutiny about the rights or wrongs of their team’s performance. For many coaches, post-failure based depression is a reality.

But does it have to be this way? Australian coach Michael Cheika left his post of five years within 24 hours of his team’s quarter-final loss to a disciplined and powerful England side. What was surprising about Cheika’s response to questions was his call for “compassion”.

Compassion is not a word commonly associated with sport at this level, yet this World Cup seems to have also shone a light on a side seldom seen in rugby – a display of humanity. This was evident in scenes of the Canadian team helping a local community clean up in Kamaishi in the wake of Typhoon Hagibis after the tropical cyclone caused their final match to be cancelled.

The footage helps us make sense of the role compassion can play in sport. Their emotional response to suffering and their authentic desire to help the citizens of Kamaishi showed a basic desire for a common humanity based on kindness, altruism and empathy.

Yet our sense of compassion seems to desert us when we enter the turnstiles, turn on the TV or flick the radio on. And this is particularly the case when we consider the referee caught in the middle.

I think it’s time this changed.

The referee South Africans love to hate, Jerome Garces (L), during the Rugby World Cup semi final match between South Africa and Wales. MARK R. CRISTINO/EPA

Hard knocks

Rugby World Cup headlines also centred on the “deselection” of Jaco Peyper, the South African referee who controlled the Wales quarter-final clash with France. Peyper got virtually every big call right during the match and has been one of the outstanding referees in the tournament. Yet he was reportedly dumped from a semi-final appointment for a photograph taken with Welsh fans at a train station.

Whatever the ethics of how the picture was taken, it should nevertheless invite us to focus our attention on the man in the middle.

In sport we seem to have allowed a vilification of the role of the referee to grow. We legitimise a non-compassionate view based on a lack of tolerance for anything that falls short of perfection.

This was further highlighted last week when South African fans demanded the removal of referee Jerome Garces from the Springboks’ semi-final with Wales. An online petition was started to take the game away from the highly-rated French official.

For what? Because statistics demonstrate that South Africa has lost more games when he has been in charge. Of course he wasn’t removed and the Springboks went on to win the match. Garces was appointed to control the final of the world cup.

Our immediate response to shout at a referee for what we consider to be a poor decision may be seen as acceptable – but taken to the extreme it is the referee and their family being increasingly trolled on social media amid verbal threats of physical harm.

Referee Jaco Pyper (C) and his assistant referees review a ruling in a quarter-final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. MARK R. CRISTINO/EPA

Where’s the compassion?

Without a more compassionate response from the rugby community the game itself is at risk of harm.

The Rugby World Cup is not just about winning. It should also be a showcase of the positive qualities of the wider rugby community – including referees. After all, its primary purpose is to promote rugby to a wider audience as a game for all. It will be a shame if this World Cup is remembered for failing to protect the mental health and well-being of its referees and, in doing so, turning potential recruits away from the job.

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