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Why football should follow rugby league

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George Riley George Riley | 18:34 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

I feel like I have written and spoken about nothing but refereeing and respect over the past fortnight. And each time I discussed the issue of officiating in football, I found myself wanting to say: "I don't want to always bring it back to rugby but..."

Let's face it, rugby league is a sport where players behave and officials are respected - on the whole. You rarely see a player mouthing off to an official. If you do, then he is swiftly removed from the pitch. When was the last time a bunch of rugby players surrounded a ref thinking such intimidation may reverse the decision? They accept the situation and get on with it. Some players even still call the official "Sir".

Yet is it fair to compare referees in football and rugby league?

Players from Wigan and Newcastle surround referee Howard Webb. Photo: Getty ImagesPlayers from Wigan and Newcastle surround referee Howard Webb. Photo: Getty Images

As I packed my kit for last week's Football Association seminar, I received a phone call from Stuart Cummings, rugby league's head of referees. A former Super League ref himself, he told me he had almost called into a recent BBC Radio 5 live discussion to explain how football can learn from rugby in terms of player attitudes towards officials.

"Territory and possession are vital in both codes of rugby, whereas in football it's pretty easy to get possession back," Cummings said, explaining that free-kicks often mean more in rugby than football. "If you have territory and possession, you have a good chance of scoring a try, which I think helps players to stay focused on their behaviour."

Cummings believes another reason why players are better behaved towards officials in rugby league is because there are fewer referees. According to Cummings, players know all the referess and treat them as workmates. In contrast, there is a bigger pool of referees in football, so players get less chance to build a rapport.

"Our players are more down to earth and sense the role a club plays in a community," added Cummings. "I'm not sure footballers do. They are more, for want of a better word, mercenary. I'm not sure they care so much about how their club is portrayed."

But what about the actual act of refereeing? Do rugby refs go about their business in a way that commands more respect from players, a manner of refereeing that is perhaps employed less in football?

"We place a lot of emphasis on talking," Cummings told me. "The rugby league ref is constantly talking to individuals and players in both the scrum and defensive line. I don't think it happens so much in football because the referees don't really have the opportunity because of the flow and shape of the game."

I put this point to FA bosses while training to be a football ref last week. "Maybe he [Cummings] has a point about the flow of a game and opportunities to chat to players," said Roger Vaughan, a national referee manager. "But communication is one of the key skills we instil in our referees, so it would be wrong to say we don't value it highly."

Cummings, a football fan as well as the Rugby Football League's chief of referees, also wishes the 11-man game would place more responsibility on team captains to keep players in check. "Why not give the captain the responsibility to sort his players out before the referee steps in for repeat offences?" he said. "It works well in rugby league."

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Again, this is an argument I struggle to disagree with. But there is one key difference and it is something I have been banging on about on about for weeks. There is no middle ground for the football ref. It is either a warning or a dismissal, a yellow or a red card.

Sin-binning is a hugely effective deterrent in rugby league. Playing 10 minutes with a man down is a big setback. It also leaves the offender to reflect on his behaviour and the fact that he has cost his team-mates.

"I think the sin bin would work in football," said Cummings. "They need an interim sanction, like a 10-minute sin-binning. I'm convinced that it would work. There might be quite a few incidents at first but it would soon work itself out."

Myself and Cummings are both rugby league supporters, so I am aware that most of this conversation may sound like two rugby men putting the football world to rights. But we are both footy fans, too, and I have played far more football than I have rugby league.

If football does have a problem with the Respect agenda, why on earth does it not look to other sports that could offer advice? Could it be the case that football regards itself as the king of sports and does not need advice from elsewhere? I put this to Cummings.

"I absolutely think that's the case," he said. "They are arrogant. I've met with football referees to compare notes and some are really good guys. But a lot of them appear very aloof and just don't want to know. You can't tell them anything."

Cummings also wonders why football is reluctant to embrace video technology. Ah yes, the question of video technology. It may be viewed with real apprehension by the football authorities but it has been a success in rugby league and cricket.

"As a football fan and a rugby league ref, I get frustrated a lot, mainly with the technology issue," said Cummings. "I don't buy the issue of video replays making the game less fluid. After a goal, everyone sees countless replays before the game kicks off again. Why not just check if a goal is offside while the players are celebrating? That would be great theatre and take some of the pressure off the referee."

So will football ever take note? "On technology? I don't think so," said Cummings bluntly.
"Football referees won't even wear a microphone because they are paranoid about something being heard that comes back to haunt them. How can [football] educate their refs when they don't even hear what goes on?"

It was refreshing for me as both a rugby league journalist and amateur footballer to hear the head of referees from one sport speaking so passionately about an issue that affects another. Rugby league is by no means perfect, of course, and could learn a lot from football. Then again, they could learn plenty from each other.


  • Comment number 1.

    "When was the last time a bunch of rugby players surrounded a ref thinking such intimidation may reverse the decision?"

    Not been to watch the Rhinos recently George?

  • Comment number 2.

    One of the main differences I see is the way referees react to players crowding round them. In football much of the time if players gather round the referee the referee will step back to move away from them. Of course, the players then move forward towards the referee, and the end result is that the referee is, in some sense, running away from the players. Psychologically I think this is damaging, as it gives the impression that the players are in control. If they see the referee backing away from them it makes it look like he is avoiding confrontation with them, and they are then more likely to think that they are right, or justified, in their actions.

    In rugby league referees are taught to stand their ground when players gather round them, thus being seen to remain as the person of authority. You do sometimes see players gather round a referee in rugby league, for example after a fight to protest their innocence or someone else's guilt, but the crucial difference is that the referee will refuse to proceed until the players have moved away (not until he has moved away from the players). It is often noticeable when watching the referee talk to players after an incident in rugby league games, that if other players start to crowd around the referee then he will stop and tell them to get back. It ensures that he can deal with the incident on his own terms, and continues to be seen as being in control.

    Sure, this approach might lead to it initially taking a bit longer to deal with incidents as the referee waits until the players have dispersed before dealing with the incident, but it would improve over time as players learnt that whilst they indulge in such petulant behaviour the game will not continue. By referees moving away when they approach, and then dealing with the incident anyway, players are not being taught that there is something wrong in what they are doing.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi George been interesting to read your experiences as a ref and the different perspectives it gives you.

    I think personally one of the reasons the refs are better in League is because the rules are far better worded and are easier to administer. With football almost every free kick ever given can be "justified" because so many of the rules are down to interpretation. Thus in football a player can slide in play the ball and nothing but the ball and it still be a free kick because the referee thinks there was a possibility to injure a player or the ball can hit a hand on the goal line and the referee can not award a penalty because he believes it was accidental, or a player can be stood offside but the referee thinks he wasn't interfering with play so he isn't deemed offside. Since every person will have their own interpretation there is far more scope for different decisions to the same incident.

    In Rugby League intent really only comes in to high tackles and occasions when the ball is knocked on by a tackling player. Thus surrounding the referee in football may make the referee change his interpretation whereas in League the referee can call on the video referee so there isn't the same advantage to be gained except in very poor calls. I also think there is a greater awareness of the rules by commentators and fans in League than there is in football with the case of handball having to be deliberate being a point in case.

    Lastly one of the things video technology does show in both cricket and both codes of Rugby is that in the vast majority of cases the onfield ref/umpire actually makes the right decision and that the video technology doesn't always eliminate controversy.

  • Comment number 4.

    Really good piece, only problem I can see is that Rugbly League ref's are slowly getting worse at their job.
    Richard Agar complained in both the media & in writing to the RFL about a ref's performance, & rather than listening to the man, the RFL slap a charge on him!
    That Ref can influence the outcome of a season & cost people their jobs with inept performances.
    What both sports need to realise its that respect is a two way street.
    Speaking to a Super league touch judge, he tells me that they are not allowed onto the pitch to speak to the main ref unless something serious has occoured. Other than that, they do very little. They cannot even (or are disuaded from) calling a forward pass, when often they are more up with the play of the ball than the ref.
    As a fan for more years than I care to remember, all I can say is Mr Cummins needs to pop down from his ivory tower & actually ref a SL match & see how well he performs these days.

  • Comment number 5.

    Would have been nice to see some examples. Lets remember not all Football fans will necessarily watching Rugby Union or League.

    If you skip to 4:40 you will see an example of a player talking back to the ref and being marched back 10 metres, then having more to say and being sin-binned. He then swore at the ref before walking off. And many Rugby League pundits and commentators were up in arms at the fact the ref didn't go one further and give him a red!

    Imo, refs are copping a bit too much flack and I can understand why football refs take it as an attack and sometimes refuse to take criticism from other sports. The way in which they ref the game comes from the top. Blame FIFA or whoever it is setting the rules and interpretations. It's no good for refs to do this and that if the Leagues and governing bodies aren't following through with appropriate punishment.

    Every problem area in the game could be all but eliminated in a season.

    I do think football fans and those with power are reluctant to concede another sport has it right, though. But that's not a problem restricted to football. There's a few rules in Rugby Union that should be changed, but aren't, because fans and administrators don't want to be seen as following in the shadows of League.

  • Comment number 6.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    I know this in a way doesn't help the case as it's a mass on-field brawl. Probably one of the biggest in recent years. But after the comotion pay attention to the refs handling of the situation and the respect given to the ref by players, even when questioning the decisions.

    The game carried on without incident.

    Again though it comes from the top. If these players carried on and abused referees then they'd be punished severely, post-game. Football players have no incentive to behave and treat referees with respect. It's a fine idea in principal but without the threat of severe punishment people aren't going to simply adhere to some sort of imaginary moral guideline.

    I blame the citing comissioners, or whoevers job it is to punish players post-game. They're the ones really at fault. I don't think you can blame on-field refs, atleast not entirely.

  • Comment number 7.

    You do a good job George... but I think BBC needs a rugby league blog that gives a broad overview of the contemporary issues of the game each week (especially since 606 is about to go), instead of tacking on a football issue onto a RL blog. Last weeks blog was the big feature on the RL page and had absolutely nothing to do with RL at all!

    Andy Wilson from the Guardian does an excellent job of doing this with the Super League Set of Six and gets 100 comments+ each week.

  • Comment number 8.

    I think George wrote this in to response to the -ve comments from his soccer article about the same subject appearing on the RL site.

    A good article for those interested in both sports, but did get published on the soccer site as well? i had a look and couldn'f find it.

    Hmmmm - stinks of appeasment

  • Comment number 9.

    I know I am now living north of Watford Gap but can we drop 'league' from the rugby comments please? Union has all the same problems and deals with players in a very similar way. Furthermore if RU could make the switch to sin-bins (with all their traditional pompous positioning) then football should be able to do it with ease. The sin bin and the 10 metre laws both are very effective weapons in a rugby refs armoury. Numbers superiority on the pitch is a huge advantage in any game and to have to watch your team play on without you must be one of the hardest things for a player to suffer. To be sent off, get changed and roar off in your Ferrari in a sulk is much easier.

    So lets have sin-bins, 10 metres and videos introduced at Championship level for a season and then move it up once the fever has settled and it has proved it's case. Leave video out for lower levels but introduce sin-bins down the order.

    As a footnote I still firmly believe sport has a huge responsibility to influence society in many ways. Friendly and courteous conduct is a by-word in RU where there is no crowd segregation, no crowd agro and women/kids are given due respect at games. It is footballs responsibility to influence all of us to be good citizens in all aspects of our behaviour (courtesy, swearing, violence etc) so starting on the field of play is a very obvious thing to achieve.

    Bob, Halifax

  • Comment number 10.

    This goes back to the origins of the game of rugby. Union was a public schools game and when the split came the ethos of fair play and respect for the referee was continued by the northern union - later rugby league. Both codes have stood to a certain degree uncorrupted by the erosion of values in society.

    Association Football was of university origins but was quickly subsumed by the working man. I am sure respect for the referee was there 100 years ago but it has provbaly been eroded by commecial pressures (more money) and changes in society.

    Bill Anderson

  • Comment number 11.

    Good blog George.

    Your next mission is to get to the bottom of why all results, fixtures and tables below Super League have vanished from the BBC digital text pages.

  • Comment number 12.

    comment #10 - absolutely not, infact I'd written this piece before I went refereeing, it was originally due to be published at the same time

  • Comment number 13.

    For me the crutial points are

    1. Football referees in the main are 'aloof' and 'arrogant' and won't listen to criticism - if some won't even let the linesman interfere with 'his' running of the game there is no hope outside influences could assist
    2. Video evidence - it seems that the sports where the officials are respected all now have this facility - maybe it can't (yet) be used for judgement calls, but factual I totally agree with the comment that in the goal celebrations it could be reviewed - being a Utd supporter I could offer two instances that aren't judgement calls and could easily, quickly, and most importantly rightly, be reviewed - Birminghams handball assisted 'goal' this season and Drogba's offside 'goal' last season at OT
    Get more of these calls right, don't refuse help and I reckon it would improve drastically and quickly

  • Comment number 14.

    I've been watching Rugby League now since 1974 and I'm amazed at the number of times the Ref goes to the Video Reply for Try Decisions, it's now too easy for Rugby Refs of both persuasions of Rugby to "Cop Out" and go to the Video Ref. Although the Rugby Union Refs only tend to use the Video to see whether the ball has been grounded. As for a 10-minute sin-bin in football, I see no reason why this would be a deterant, we have seen football teams win with 10-men, with a sin-bin, the offending team would just pull a striker back to midfield to compensate and close shop. Oh and Bill Anderson #10 Rugby WASN'T a Public Schoolboys Game, that is what caused the Split. The Public Schoolboys could stay Amateur, the Players in The North had to take time off work and wanted
    /take broken time payments.

  • Comment number 15.

    #13. forrester wrote:

    >>being a Utd supporter I could offer two instances that aren't judgement calls and >>could easily, quickly, and most importantly rightly, be reviewed - Birminghams >>handball assisted 'goal' this season and Drogba's offside 'goal' last season at OT

    The Drogba one could easily be cleared up because it is clear he was offside and seeking to gain an advantage from it, but the Birmingham "handball" goal (like the Macheda one in the same game as the Drogba one) is a judgement call since you have to make a call whether Zigic deliberatly meant to handball it. You could watch that a hundred times and not know whether it was deliberate and thus handball or whether the ball just hit his hand which is play on. The referee clearly felt Zigic didn't intend to handle it, you disagree. This goes back to my original point that there are more rules in football that are down to interpretation. If the rule was "if it hits his hand then it's handball" that would be far easier to referee and there would be no disputing it, but that isn't the rule so the referee has to decide intention which is far more difficult to do and his reading of a situation maybe completely different from everyone else (irrespective of how many times they watched it on replay in slow mo high def from 4 different camera angles).

  • Comment number 16.

    We seem to have gone off on a tangent here. The original blog concerns respect for officials.

    In my opinion, if your ref'/umpire, etc makes the worst decisions you've ever seen, there is still no excuse for ill-mannered abuse. There should be proper channels for complaining about his performance afterwards. The behaviour of footballers is genreallly appalling. It is simply that in this sport the tradition of courtesy has been lost. Sometimes I watch an incident on television in which a player quite clearly hacks an opponent down, then argues furiously with the referee for awarding a free-kick; whereas I proudly remember about thirty years ago taking a friend to a RL match, and he was astounded at the way the payers accepted decisions and retreated ten yards.

    But it is quite possible to regain the tradition in football, and in my view extremely important for reasons that go beyond sport. I don't think I'm being melodramatic when I suggest that the attitude of professional footballers has a great influence on the problems we have in our society. A good mate of mine who is a Notts Forest fan tells me that Clough's successful teams of the 70's never argued with the referee.

    But to enforce standards you have to have sanctions and not be afraid to use them. The ten yard rule for players arguing would be a start. Heavy, and I mean heavy fines should be imposed on clubs whose players or managers publicly criticise referees. Criticise officially, yes, but behind closed doors.

    As for technology, well I have to agree that there must be a degree of arrogance here on football's part. At least try out goalline cameras and we can argue about other uses when we've seen the success which this small development would quite obviously bring. The RFL have made some poor decisions over the years, but it gives me great pride that they led other sports with some innovations which were bold at the time: substitutes, then tactical substitutes, video technology, allowing injury treatment while the game continues, extra match officials - several of which have been sensibly followed by other sports, but not by football!

  • Comment number 17.

    As a follower of both sports (RL and Football), there is one piece of technology that I can't understand why Football hasn't taken on board - surely the use of a video review panel will aid Football's referees.

    If footballers know that if they are seen by a video review panel, in some way cheating (eg diving) or backchatting referees for instance, and that they will then be given some sort of retrospective punishment such as a yellow card which will count towards a ban, or a red card if appropriate etc, then they are in my opinion less likely to show blatant disrespect to match officials.

    Why do players show blatant disrespect to referees ? Because they know they will get away with it. Simple.

  • Comment number 18.

    George I'm really glad you wrote this piece because we are on the exact same page. I've been saying to mates for a few years now (since Javier Mascherano's outburst of expletives to the ref - which went unpunished - following his first yellow card at Old Trafford 2 or 3 seasons ago) that football needs a sin-bin for dissent only. 3 mins in the bin for me, which has no connection or bearing on any yellows, which are given for all other current non-dissent offences.

    The key is to punish the team for the offence, rather than the player, as happens in RL. This way the other players and manager soon round on any repeat offender and they become shamed in a way that doesn't currently happen.

    Footballers are wise to the current system and know that a ref will be very reluctant to book anyone for dissent, especially if a few of them gang up on him. A flurry of yellows means a ton of "He's lost control" comments from dour pundits and just isn't really practical.

  • Comment number 19.

    (cont.) ....and players who have already been booked (like Mascherano in that example; his outburst came as the ref produced the yellow - rightly - for a rash challenge) also know that they have a kind of "freebie" volley of abuse to a ref up to a point. No ref wants to give a "soft" 2nd yellow for dissent and you can't really blame them, even if frequently they technically should.

    It's in this kind of grey area that the worst transgressors of football dissent operate. A sin-bin destroys it, without asking refs to be too liberal with the yellow card and thus reduce games to farce.

  • Comment number 20.

    (cont.) My honest feeling is that just having the dissent sin-bin there would mean it would rarely actually need to be used. Players would learn some long overdue manners, effectively.

    It's basic common sense to me and I can think of no good reason why it hasn't been tried before, except that as you touch on, football above all other sports has shown itself to be unbelievably stubborn at moving with the times and updating rules and protocol.

    Note also that at the time of this Mascherano thing I posted my theory on a football message board and got zero agreement and actually a lot of disdain. "The yellow for dissent is fine, refs should use it more" was the general gist.

    We know better ultimately I think George lad and you make the point very well.

  • Comment number 21.

    I'm a Brit who now lives in the US and as a Footie fan, Rugby Lg and Union Fan as well as a fan of other sports one thing I see is that in other sports the officials get a fair amount more respect than in Football. I like the idea of sin-binning it works in Rugby League and Union, It works in Ice Hockey (a game where the flow is similar in it's back and forth nature). But even other sports where sin-binning isn't used (NFL, NBA etc) most officials are given more respect I think however one of the main things is accountability. Players make mistakes and so do refs, but the officials in football hide behind the FA and never admit they made a mistake. Surely if there was more accountability then players would see that if the call is wrong then the official will be accountable for it and the odds of bad calls will be minimal. I agree that the captains have to take more actions to put their players in check, and I think if a foul is committed and players start arguing the ref should do what they do in Rugby march it forward 10 yards, it puts the emphasis on the players to no argue because they end up in a worse position. I think one thing is the lopsided way players and managers are treated as opposed to officials, players and managers MUST talk to the press after the game but officials aren't allowed to. Why not make that a two way street because when players and managers feel like they got a bad call they talk about it and then get punished with suspensions. You want respect you have to respect people back. Great article though

  • Comment number 22.


    The "accountability" argument is one I hear a lot and I don't personally agree. I think it's a hard enough job ref-ing these high profile games without then having to lay yourself bare to the media, clubs etc. The ref SHOULD be anonymous and accountable only to HIS/HER bosses, this is a healthy part of the fabric of sport.

    It's all about empowering refs with the means to deal with dissent, ultimately. As George points out in football uniquely it's "a yellow or nothing". Well most refs - being human and not wishing to reduce games to farce - will always try the "talking to" option etc. and in this climate unfortunately it just doesn't work. The authorities are simply failing them. To blame the refs themselves is to miss the point entirely and just perpetuate and even worsen the whole thing IMHO.

    Personally I'm amazed anyone would want to ref a Premier League game. Just a thankless task.

  • Comment number 23.

    Problem is that players wouldn't be celebrating if the goal was being reviewed for offside via video technology. It'd be like the boring process of waiting for the try to be decided in Rugby. For nearly every try. The ref's don't make any decisions on their own. Thats why there is still respect in rugby. The Ref is no longer the ultimate authority on the pitch in rugby. There is no point in moaning at them.
    "Can I just check that number 7 was onside?" for nearly every try.

    I agree with sin binning though. That could work

  • Comment number 24.

    The arguement that football is to fast a the game does not lend itself to "respecting the ref" is rubbish. watch a game of Hockey. faster pased than Football, equally difficult decissions to be made but you will not see players crowding the Umpire. I played for 20 years and only once heard a player call an umpire the C word and he was straight off to the changing rooms and received a 3 match ban.
    I think a huge difference in Hockey is the three card system, the sin bin rule and moving or reversing a decission if players make comment. you very quickly learn to keep your mouth shut if the play moves 10 yards, and then another 10 because of your big mouth. And make the wrong comment to the umpire and he can award a free hit that was in your favoutr against you. you still get a huge competative spirit. but not with the umpire who is there so that you can play, without him there's no game. so you had better respect him.


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