The dismissal of Sam Tomkins for dissent in Wigan Warriors’ 40-12 win over Harlequins opened the debate on the way players speak to referees. It seems that a soccer-like level of dissent is taking root in our game.
I don’t go along with the view espoused by many – for instance Sky Sports’ Mike “Stevo” Stephenson – that the players should never query the referees’ decision. The real problem is the way they go about this. If players are stopped from asking the referee questions frustration will grow, which can be dangerous in what is already a highly-charged atmosphere. However, verbal abuse directed towards the officials must not be tolerated.
It’s not that referees don’t make mistakes; they do. A rugby league truism is that “referees don’t drop balls, and referees don’t miss tackles”. In a sense, however, this isn’t true. If a player commits a double movement and yet the try is awarded, the referee has literally missed a tackle. That’s why the right to politely question the referee must remain.
It’s not even that referees at Super League level are likely to be in any real danger from the dissenting players. As was the case with Tomkins a yellow card is brandished and the player has to leave the field. The problems really start when the idea that it is ok to shout and swear at a referee filters down to grassroots level, where a referee might be in danger of attack and not have any degree of protection from angry players and spectators.
In soccer there are cases of referees in amateur leagues being physically attacked over poor decisions, or what are perceived to be poor decisions. Part of the responsibility must lie with the kind of petulant Premiership footballers who turn harassing the referee into a legitimate part of the game. These people are idolised by those who play in amateur leagues, who imitate the actions of their heroes, leaving the officials as targets for abuse.
This is something we can certainly do without in our game. If players at the top level continue to abuse the referee, or treat pressuring the referee as a legitimate tactic, referees at amateur level may find themselves being targeted by players and spectators. When this happens their safety is compromised; in addition, fewer people will take up the whistle, and amateur rugby league isn’t exactly overburdened with people volunteering to referee at the moment.
Players and coaches at the top level need to realise the responsibility they have and speak to referees politely. By all means query a questionable decision, but shouting and swearing is unacceptable. The referees should also continue to clamp down on any abuse or intimidation, so that players aren’t allowed to get away with it as they often are in the round-ball game.
It would be sad to see this kind of dissent become acceptable in the game, and hopefully players will realise that referees deserve to be treated with respect. Yes they make mistakes, but they’re doing their best, and continually speaking out of turn has dangerous repercussions.