Recent high profile incidents of referee abuse have put the spotlight on rugby union’s tradition of total respect for match officials.

At home in England a top-level coach was banned for his post-match TV comments about a referee and the club was threatened with a points deduction if his behaviour continued. He had accepted the charge of “conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game”.

The chairman of the disciplinary panel hearing the case, Ian Unsworth QC, said that the coach’s comments “struck at the heart of the game’s core values. The game is built upon respect. There must be respect for officials.”

With coaches and their players acting as role models, this case highlights a need to protect rugby’s values throughout the game.

At the top level respect, or the lack of it, is televised and broadcast as the face of rugby.

At grassroots, respect of referees impacts playing numbers and is one reason parents choose rugby as a sport for youngsters.

In the RFU’s new Strategic Plan, Protect is a strategic priority for the first time. It is no longer a background assumption but placed at the forefront of how the sport will “respond to the changing sports landscape and keep rugby ahead of the game.”

“Protecting everything that makes rugby in England so special” is a priority in the Plan, with the intent to “Protect the spirit and values of the game and embrace and promote England Rugby’s core values to inspire and lead success.”

There have certainly been cases of referees in other sports giving up because of abuse or a routine lack of respect. Rugby cannot afford to lose any of the current 6,000 referees or 400 developers and educators.

Michael Patz, RFU Match Official Development Manager, says that young players often respect the referee and are mortified when parents don’t.

“I had a father yelling at me when I was officiating and an U16 player said ‘I’m really sorry about my dad sir’. Sometimes it’s the kids who educate parents who really ought to know better. Verbal abuse directed at the referee, the opposition or even their own kid’s team is hugely detrimental and not the image the game needs. And it isn’t only referees who need to control the playing environment, clubs also need to educate players and supporters and to adopt a zero tolerance approach.”

RFU Head of Discipline David Barnes adds: “When someone appears in front of a disciplinary panel matters have clearly gone too far. While emotions may run high and people are passionate about their team, we don’t want this to negatively impact the image of the game. We are all responsible for that whether we are players, coaches or fans.”

Chris White, who leads the monitoring and recognition of values across the RFU’s Professional Game Match Officials Team says: “Game values are discussed and reported on by the referees team and the referee coaches and observers after every single professional game. Indeed, values now form part of the official review form.

“Often I am delighted to say referees and observers report ‘there were no game value issues’ or ‘game values were excellent’, which is what we would hope for. However, each week we raise awareness of the moments on and off field when values are challenged. We then discuss how we best respond in real time and discuss best practice as a team of officials.

“It should also be noted that the introduction to the laws – the spirit of the laws – talks about the responsibility lying with not one person but all coaches, players, captains and referees.”

One of England Rugby’s professional referees, Wayne Barnes, who has been involved from the grassroots all the way through the elite level of the game says: “The reason we all want to be involved in rugby, why we want our children to be involved in rugby and why sponsors want to be involved in rugby, is rugby’s core values. We all therefore have a role to play in upholding those values, whether as a player reminding a team mate, a fan reminding a fellow fan or a coach reminding a colleague; we must all play our part in keeping hold of those core values that we hold so dear.

“Those core values are currently being stressed at all academies and all Premiership and Championship clubs. Referees are doing their part by reinforcing that message too. Refereesalways aim to make the right decisions during a match but, like players and coaches, we will make mistakes too.”

Some referee societies, like Dorset and Wilts and North Midlands have annual Whistler Awards, recognising clubs where referees enjoy officiating because of the warm welcome and the way they are hosted.

The North Midlands Referees Society has, for more than 20 years, asked members to nominate clubs for the Society’s Club of the Year Award, based on: how they were contacted by the club, prior to the game; clear directions, kick off times; how they were greeted; the changing facilities and pitch markings and thelevel of respect shown by players and coaches,
both during and after the game.

Out of the 61 clubs in the North Midlands referees usually nominate at least 30, from which a winner is selected by a points system, referees selecting their first, second and third choices. Previous winners include: Camp Hill Old Edwardians, Birmingham Exiles and Droitwich.

Dorset & Wilts award the Bob Stock Trophy every year to the club most supportive of match officials. Says Vicky Muir: “It’s important to welcome the referee. A friendly face, small talk and a bit of support is a great thing. Our recent award winners have included: Royal Wootton Bassett, Wheatsheaf and Puddletown.”