by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
My curiosity of the origin of the term referee and how they came to play such an important role in our game lead me to look into the topic this past weekend. As a competitive athlete and now coach, I wondered why we call a referee, “referee”. While at it, I reached out to a local rugby ref who I greatly respect and asked for his perspective on a series of questions related to how the game has changed. Lastly, I asked what a referee would want players new to the game to know about rugby.
Without providing an entire reiteration of the history of the game, it warrants noting that the reason behind rugby having “laws” not “rules” is because the gentlemen who were responsible for formulating the initial guidelines for rugby were lawyers, thus “laws of the game” were created, not rules. What is even more interesting to me is the evolution of the referee. During soccer matches in the 1870’s, both sides were responsible for putting forward an “umpire” for a match. These “umpires” would run the pitch, keeping an eye on the proceedings. They could not interfere with play, but could be “appealed to” by the players. The umpires would then “refer” to a neutral observer on the touchline to make a ruling. As the matches became more competitive, and the umpires more polarized toward their own team’s performance, the neutral observer on the touchline was “referred to” more and more often. It came to the point where the two umpires switched places with the neutral observer being referred to, and next thing you know, we have a “refer-ee” and two touch judges, now called assistant referees. It is believed that this transformation in soccer was similar in rugby.
Few team sports can be officiated today without a whistle. Think for a minute what athletic contests would be like without the referee being able to use a whistle to start and stop play. There was a time long ago where handkerchiefs were used to try and get the participants attention when an infraction had occurred in soccer matches. Can you imagine someone running down the touchline shouting while waving hankies for obstruction? Glad that isn’t the case now.
Of course with such dramatic change came resistance by the establishment, but the newly created whistle allowed referees to be heard by the players over the roar of the crowd. The whistle’s history originates in soccer but is the second most powerful possession a rugby referee has, the first being their knowledge of the laws of the game.
Wanting to gain his perspective on how the game has changed during his career, I reached out to referee Bruce Carter, a long time servant of Northern California and USA Rugby, to ask a few questions on law changes and what new rugby players should know about the game.
Coach Billups (CB): You have been around rugby a long time; do you like the law changes that have occurred over the last several years? What further changes would like to see? What do you hope never changes about the game?
Bruce Carter (BC): What I think is most beneficial has changed gradually over the past few decades, a series of player practices, referee adjustments and law changes allowing for more continuity at the breakdown. Watch a video from before the late eighties to see messier, longer-lasting breakdowns, with the halfbacks and the refs literally looking for the ball and fans losing interest around the world.
About twenty years ago players began to 'lay the ball back' at the tackle, keeping their hand on it to steady it as support arrived. Nobody changed the law - coaches and players started doing it and referees adjusted.
Changes in law to require entering from one's own side have helped with this phase of the game. Cleaning out techniques for preventing opponents from poaching the ball were developed and taught beginning about ten years ago.
The net result has been to make the game far more exciting to play and to watch than it was at the time of the first Rugby World Cup.
Of the recent changes, putting the defense back five at scrums has been useful. I'd like to see everybody back five meters at rucks and mauls as well, but that's been tried (at the Laws Laboratories at Cambridge and Stellenbosch) and has proved impossible to referee.
What I hope never changes are the things that make rugby unique: scrums, lineouts, rucks, mauls (including rolling mauls), continuation of play and a relatively low number of substitutions/replacements.
(CB): What are the three most important things you would encourage high school and college players to learn/understand about rugby?
(BC): 1). I would hope that players new to our game would always be taught our ethos of friendship with opponents and come to embrace it. It begins with a lack of trash talking and ends with the fact that you can travel the world and always 'pick up a game' and have a set of instant friends wherever you go. You can help your opponent up off the ground after he's levelled you. You can give him technical advice during the game for safety purposes, and tactical advice afterwards for down the road.
2). Learn every skill needed across the pitch. 'My position' in rugby is 'rugby player': we all pass and catch, run and tackle, clear out and ruck, kick along the ground and in the air. We all have to know safe body positions and techniques to be used when in contact with teammates or collisions with opponents.
3). One thing that likely distinguishes rugby from other sports new players may have experienced is that it is a life sport; maybe the only contact team sport that you can play well into adulthood without being at the elite level. If you enjoy it when you're a student you'll find many reasons to continue to love it if you carry rugby into your working, married and family life. You'll stay fit, you'll always have a support group of mates and you'll have an acceptable release for the aggressions of modern life.
(CB): “In your experience, what would improve the relationship between referees and players and referees and coaches?”
(BC): I think it's pretty good as it is. I talk to officials of other sports whenever I get the chance and rugby is probably number one in terms of job satisfaction with respect to those kinds of relations. When the relationship does breaks down it's usually a matter of poor communication. Somebody doesn't explain himself clearly or respectfully and/or someone else isn't listening. Preconceived notions and agendas on both sides of the touchline can contribute to this. When we sit down and talk about rugby we always find many things more in common than some one instance that divided us.
(CB): “What has been the most memorable match you have refereed?”
(BC): The military final at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1998.
I played my competitive and representative rugby for the Army and the Combined Services, so I have a warm spot for those military games. It was an honor to be assigned to referee their club finals. My touch judges were Tom Coburn and Dana Teagarden, both of whom went on to do Test-match rugby, so we had a very good team.
In these days there were scores of teams from the five services in the competition. Fort Bragg was captained by an old teammate of mine at the end of his playing career, Mike Legg, and had a hometown crowd behind them. They narrowly defeated Fort Drumm, New York, who had a young Corporal playing #10 who was one of the best players I've ever been on a pitch with, the evergreen Mose Timoteo.
Refs root for teams, whatever we say. And sometimes we root for both teams. This was such a game.
Well said Bruce, and thank you from all those players and teams who you have refereed matches for during your career.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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