‘Zero tolerance’ crackdown on abuse of rugby referees as threats rise

The Rugby Football Union has issued referees with guidance on dealing with threats such as “I’m going to punch your lights out” and “I’m going to smash your car up” as part of a crackdown on the abuse of match officials for the new season.

Amid a significant rise in incidents of abuse at all levels and fears of a shortage of referees in the lower leagues and grassroots game, the RFU has contacted all referee societies and disciplinary panels, emphasising the need for a “zero tolerance” approach.

The guidance highlights five different categories – disrespecting the official’s authority, verbal abuse, using threatening words or actions, making physical contact and physical abuse – and provides examples of what would classify as each one. “Are you fucking joking, ref?” would be considered disrespecting the official’s authority, while “are you are retard?” or “you’re a cheat” would fall under verbal abuse.

For the more serious offence of using threatening words or actions, examples such as “I’m going to punch your lights out”, “I’m going to smash your car up” and “I wouldn’t come into the club house if I was you”, are given.

Moving a referee out of the way to make a tackle or at a breakdown would constitute physical contact, while physical abuse is described as a player charging at a referee, pushing the referee with force and any punch, strike or kick.

The RFU has also told all disciplinary panels they are obliged to follow World Rugby sanctions in the event of a red card for match officials abuse. In accordance with law 9.28, disrespecting the official’s authority, verbal abuse and physical contact can all lead to bans of up to 12 months while threatening words or actions can be punished by a suspension of up to five years. The top-end sanction for physical abuse is a lifetime ban. When acts are committed by coaches, backroom members of staff, spectators or parents, the disciplinary charge of “conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game” can be brought.

“We take the abuse of match officials very seriously and will act decisively whenever and however it occurs,” said the RFU’s head of discipline, David Barnes. “The discipline panels at both the RFU and local level all follow the same process to ensure consistency of approach across the country. Aligning match officials and discipline panels on how to identify, manage and report abuse is important ahead of the season kicking off.”

Last season, according to the RFU’s published list of disciplinary judgments, there were 29 cases that would fall into the five categories, including one which resulted in a 20-week ban for a shoulder charge on a referee, who said he also found his trousers in a rubbish bin after the match.

There were six cases involving disrespecting the match official’s authority in the Premiership, including incidents which led to suspensions for Dean Richards and Chris Boyd, the respective directors of rugby at Newcastle and Northampton – both of whom were sanctioned for post-match comments.

Last season the England winger Anthony Watson was also reprimanded for criticising a match official on social media and given a one-week suspended ban. The disciplinary panel dealing with that incident heard from the Rugby Football Referees Union, which highlighted concerns over the shortage of match officials at grassroots level following the pandemic-enforced layoff.

“It is no secret that the number of referees taking up the whistle again after such a prolonged layoff, is causing concern,” read a statement. “A situation exacerbated by many of our members leaving the game having become disillusioned with, amongst other things, persistent challenging of their decisions and unfortunately, some serious incidences of match official abuse.”