Chris Kendall lifts lid on social media abuse, Challenge Cup final drama and life as Super League referee

George Riley

2RG1B24 Kingston upon Hull, England - 6th August 2023 Referee Chris Kendall. Rugby League Betfred Super League , Hull FC vs Wakefield Trinity at MKM Stadium, Kingston upon Hull, UK

Challenge Cup final referee Chris Kendall is one of rugby league’s top officials. He is also one of the most maligned.

 “There is a popular misconception that referees like to be the showpiece event and make it all about them,” he says. “I might cop that a little bit more than others. ‘The Chris Kendall Show’. That couldn’t be any further from the truth.”

Kendall produced an assured performance at an emotionally-charged Headingley on Friday night as Leeds paid tribute to Rob Burrow with a win over Leigh. It was a game in which you would have barely noticed the referee, and that is exactly what Kendall wants whenever he takes to the field. Yet so often he, and his close-knit group of fellow referees, end up the pantomime villains.

Fans will hurl insults at referees in most sports, rugby league being no exception. That negative feeling will intensify on social media, where most refs are themselves active, but where those who throw stones will nonetheless feel beyond reproach.

And referees, who – unlike players and coaches – don’t do interviews, will absorb the tidal waves of toxicity without any kind of voice to respond.

But now, in a rare and thought-provoking interview, 32-year-old Kendall has opened up on the impact of referee abuse, the challenges of officiating at the top level, and exactly what was going through his head in the fiery first few minutes at Wembley this month.

“You go into a game thinking what is my plan here?,” said Kendall, who sin-binned Wigan’s Mike Cooper after three minutes of the Cup final and Warrington’s Matt Dufty moments later. 

“My plan A at Wembley was to get through the first few sets, the players probably won’t push too much, then we evaluate. By the 8th or 9th tackle of the game my plan A had gone to plan Z. A totally unexpected start to the game.”

Liam Farrell and George Williams speak to Chris Kendall
Liam Farrell and George Williams speak to Chris Kendall at the Challenge Cup final.

The two yellow cards risked seeing the game explode and making Kendall the headline again. But the game settled down after that rip-roaring start, and there was little hint of further controversy in Wigan’s record-extending 21st Challenge Cup success.

Kendall says he had little choice with the action that he and video referee Liam Moore took and was aware that it would be an unpopular call.

“You don’t want to inject yourself into the game – if you can not do that then brilliant. The first high tackle from Mike Cooper comes and I am thinking ‘I have not got a choice here. I know I am going to have to deal with this’.

“But then equally I know what is going to come with it. ‘Chris Kendall is making it about himself again. Chris Kendall loves a card and loves making it all about himself’. It would be easier to back off but that wouldn’t have been right for the game or the long-term health of the players.” 

And that, in a nutshell is the impossible job that referees often have. Adhering to the increasingly strict head contact guidelines knowing full well it is they who will take the vitriol of fans, coaches, players, and keyboard warriors unhappy with decisions they have no choice but to make.

“Brain health is just as important in a regular Super League match as it is in a final. If we hadn’t stuck to that framework in the Challenge Cup final then we would have been ignoring the main role of the referee which is to protect the safety of players.

“It would be easy to ignore the framework and say anything goes. But that is not right for the game and the long-term safety of players.”

As for being public enemy no1 on rugby league twitter, Kendall claims it is “water off a duck’s back”. But you tend to think it probably isn’t, and nor should it be. 

Kendall is a pretty thoughtful, warm and sensitive guy with strong family values – his young son will very soon have a new sibling. His unassuming character is very much at odds with some of the online perception of him as a cocky, attention-seeking show-pony referee. And that is where much of the abuse stems from.

“It doesn’t really bother me now, but it probably did bother me,” admits Kendall, who is active on social media. “I have an account on Twitter (X) and enjoy being on that platform. I am not having keyboard warriors push me off a platform that I enjoy being on.

“Twitter is a cesspit, and can be an awful platform to be on. But I’m not too bothered what someone writes about me who I don’t care about –  I care about what my family and friends and coaches think about me.

“It can sometimes get quite personal. I have no issue with opinions and debate. There is a line and an obvious line that is often crossed week to week, but it is water off a duck’s back.

“When Max was born I had a pretty vile comment aimed at Max. It then gathered traction in the media and I had to speak to my parents.

“We have at times an unhealthy obsession with referees. That’s not just our sport. Anything involving refs seems to get hits. We can’t just say referees are off limits because they are not. But the constant obsession with it just negatively impacts us as referees, recruitment and the game in general.”

In a wide-ranging, anything goes interview on the “SOM Talks: Referees” podcast for mental fitness charity State of Mind Sport, Kendall also reveals the difficult dynamic between the elite group of referees who are close friends while competing for the same high-profile roles, as well as the preparation and fitness needed to perform at the top level.

“Aaron Moore I would back to go toe-to-toe with any Super League players in terms of fitness.

“We train as hard – if not harder – on the running aspect as players do. We don’t have to worry about getting on the floor, getting whacked and then getting up again. But in terms of miles in our legs we train as hard, if not harder, than a Super League club.”

‘SOM Talks: Referees’ is available on all major podcast platforms. Episodes 1 and 2 featured Liam Moore and Tara Jones. Episode 3 with Chris Kendall is available from today (Tuesday June 26).