Rugby players and referees

The 2023 Rugby World Cup tournament is currently underway in France. Here are highlights from the first weekend, showing all the tries (touchdowns) that were scored.

One thing that always impresses me in rugby is how a single referee (aided by two touch judges on the sidelines for specific roles) controls such a fast moving game with 30 players. The refs are aided by the strict code of conduct that forbids players arguing with them, so you see nothing like the ugly scenes in American football (or other professional sports) where players and even coaches argue over calls. This is not because rugby players are innately courteous to the refs. It is because in rugby, respect for the referee is instilled into players from the beginning.

You just need to watch one rugby match to notice how much the referee is respected by the players. When referees award a penalty, you won’t see them surrounded by an angry team arguing their innocence.

And when a referee penalizes a burly forward who towers over him? “Yes Sir, sorry Sir”, is the standard reply.

Respect for referees is ingrained into players from when they start playing the game.

So, if respect for referees is part of rugby culture – does that make the players more enlightened than in other sports?

Absolutely not! There are some very practical reasons as to why rugby players show respect to referees.

We can start with the considerable powers that allow rugby referees to enforce respect on the field.

Law 10.4 of the rules say that: “All players must respect the authority of the referee. They must not dispute the referee’s decisions.” By itself that may not mean much but it gets teeth because violations of this rule has serious consequences for the team.

Referees can issue a yellow card if a player disputes their decision.

A soccer player may shrug at a yellow card as if it’s no big deal. But in rugby, a yellow card sends the player off the pitch for ten minutes.

This can have a very negative impact on a team, particularly when playing a stronger opponent.

Coaches and team-mates may be tolerant if a player incurs a yellow card for tactical reasons.

What if the team is six points up with a minute to go and defending their try line? A player may not get a roasting from the coach if they are carded for lying on the ball.

Dissent is a completely different matter.

Get sent off for arguing with the referee? Teammates will think the offending player is an idiot.

And the coach may think they’re due an extended break from playing.

When players are penalized, the penalty is given to the opposition at the place where the infringement occurred.

If the offending player (or anyone on the team) talks back to the referee or shows any sign of disrespect, their situation may get worse. The referee can move the point of the penalty forward by ten yards.

The entire defending team has to retreat toward their try line. This is known as being marched backward! Rugby is a game of territory, so it is a significant blow.

And this can be done repeatedly. I’ve seen a referee march a team backward a second time when a player has kept arguing. That’s a twenty yards difference, which is very significant in rugby.

What is more, the rugby administrators don’t mess around when it comes to enforcing rules against disrespecting the referees.

There was a high profile case in 2013 when the captain of England was shown a red card for disrespect in a club game.

Wayne Barnes had awarded a scrum penalty against Dylan Hartley’s club Leicester in the league final.

Suddenly, the referee [Barnes] pulled out his red card and pointed it at Hartley.

Referees wear a microphone in elite rugby matches. Barnes was heard to say that the player had called him a “cheat” (with an expletive).

A panel from the governing body reviewed the offense after the game. They banned the player for 11 weeks.

Hartley and his club chose not to appeal.

The general consensus was that the governing body would back the referee.

This banning was of the captain of the English team. Compare this with professional sports in the US where top players tend to be given quite a bit of leeway to argue and vent their frustrations with the refs and fan react angrily if their heroes are punished.

Another reason for the lack of arguments is that only the captain of a team can talk to the referee.

You may be used to seeing players in other team sports surrounding a referee to argue about a decision. This does not happen in rugby, and there is a simple reason for it.

Only the captain can approach a referee and raise a matter of concern for the team. If other players have something to raise, they must relay this through their captains.

Even though captains can speak to the referee,  they have no right to be heard. The referee can tell them to go away.

You will literally hear this in a match – and players have to retreat. Otherwise, they will be penalized and possibly shown a yellow card for disrespect.

The referee of course may speak to any player who infringes, but will usually call the captain over to hear the decision.

As I said, there is no reason to think that rugby players are any more intrinsically polite to the refs than professional American athletes. It is the system that enforces strict discipline on them. It could work in the US if the administrators had a mind to something similar.


  1. ccwright says

    Rugby players may not be more “intrinsically “ polite, but respect for the referee is inculcated from the moment you start playing.
    In my case, at the age of 9.
    Also the best referees have a rapport with the players and know many of them by name.
    But to totally prove your point, enjoy the first 20 seconds of this:

  2. billseymour says

    I can’t imagine that happening in baseball.  Anybody can disagree with an umpire; and it’s no more serious a matter than any disagreement about anything.  The disagreement can even be loud and angry.  What a player may not do is:

    -- physically touch the umpire in any way, even accidentally
    -- shout obscenities
    -- attribute to the umpire any character flaw

    Any of those will get the player ejected from the game; and that is not tremendously unusual.  Anyone who has watched more than a handful of games will probably have seen it at least once.

    What often happens after that is that the team’s manager will come running out of the dugout taking the side of the player, often with an extremely angry countenance.  As often as not, that results in the manager being ejected as well, and one of the coaches taking over as acting manager for the rest of the game.

    This year, there’s a new rule that a team may formally challenge certain calls by an umpire.  When that happens, a group of umpires in New York will review all the video and make a final ruling.  There’s typically no argument surrounding challenges.

    All of that is just an ordinary part of baseball.  More serious is when players get into actual fights.  That can result in fines and suspension from baseball for some period or number of games.  Fights do happen, but they’re rare.

    Do such arguments ever happen in cricket?

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Who could have guessed that having rules with clear penalties for infringement and enforcing them would result in a change of behaviour? A large part of the reason why I don’t watch football is the constant visible cheating going unpunished by referees.

    On the other hand, most of the time when I do watch a football game I can clearly describe why a referee has made a particular decision. When I watch a rugby match I’ve often no clue why a penalty has been given, and crucially two of my closest friends who played rugby all their lives starting at public schools (Shrewsbury and literally Rugby) admit that much of the time they don’t either. Maybe it’s my ASD but I simply can’t enjoy watching a game where I don’t know WHY what is happening is happening.

    And I know we’re not the only ones. Years ago David Baddiel did a series of programmes for the BBC in which he tried to learn about something complicated and obscure, then explain it to an expert. One of the subjects was “the American electoral system”. Another was “the laws of rugby”. (Laws -- not rules). And even the experts conceded that it’s often not clear why something’s happened even to experts. Furthermore, I’ve seen less experienced referees criticised for excessive adherence to the rules laws.

    I’ll stick to watching Bluey with the kids. I have some idea what’s going on there.

  4. Mano Singham says

    ccwright @#1,

    Thanks for that very interesting video.

    There is so much going on in the game (and the rules can be subtle especially in set and loose scrums) that it is not surprising that the referee, who is up close, may see things that the spectators and commentators do not. The referee, being human, may make a mistake occasionally. But I much prefer that to endless and angry arguments made by players who feel they have been wronged. They should simply suck it up and leave it to the officiating bodies to monitor referee performance and behavior to see if they are up to standard.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    It is because in rugby, respect for the referee is instilled into players from the beginning.

    That used to be the case in soccer, certainly when I was playing as a kid in England, and even later in Canada. It also used to be the case that only skippers could talk to the ref. Remonstrations to the ref could bring out a yellow, or even red, card. Dunno why the huge change, but I wouldn’t be a soccer ref for any money these days.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    If you want to see how people behave when there are no consequences for behaving badly, Pharyngula has an entry about the conduct of a certain Boebert, as caught on a security camera in a cinema.

  7. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake, how do you propose to fuck me off?

    (Becoming yet another serial bully and just popping into threads to abuse me ain’t gonna work. You should have got that by now.)

    Anyway, to be on-topic, however indirectly, and to avoid (perhaps for once, though I know you mob) this thread becoming all about me responding to your attempted taunts, I’ll note that the point is that not all games’ gameplay depends on referees’ subjective determinations.
    Implication (I know you never got that far) is that there is no need to instill unquestioning respect and obedience to such people during gameplay.

    (Be advised that I well remember Blake’s 7. It has not held up, and trust me, you should not want to rewatch it unless you are still childish in your appreciations)

  8. Silentbob says

    @ 10 Morales

    It was a request, not a statement of intent Mr Literal. 🙂

    I think it’s funny you feel bullied. What happened to the joy feasting on chewtoys?

    P.S. sonofrojblake has shared that’s literally his father’s name, not a direct reference to TV.

  9. John Morales says


    I think it’s funny you feel bullied.

    If this is a true claim, it would be because you’re a dolt, and thus imagine that when I wrote that people try to bully me it means I feel bullied.

    Wishful thinking, obs. To feel bullied, I’d have to actually be bullied.

    (Whiny, yappy puppies don’t quite do the job, however persistent they may be)

    Incidentally and hopelessly off topic — I’m not named after a Kevin Smith character.

    WTF engendered that putative correction?

    (Care to quote whatever it is made you imagine that?)


    @10: fuck off, Morales.

    @11: you’re feeding it.

    Yes, your need is being fed by the noisy bub, yet your imprecations remain mockable. But fine, your off is well and truly fucked.

    (Happy, now?)

    Hey, 3 comments trying to diss me, only one from me retorting.

    And, of course, the comment stream has become about me.

    Me, me, me.

    (Getting harder to dispute that, no?)

    (That’s how it goes, one-to-many)

  10. John Morales says

    Holms, surely even you are finding this stuff tedious.

    Cool, but no one made that claim.

    Whatever made you imagine that I thought someone made “that claim”, so that it merits you claiming nobody made “that claim”?

    (Whatever “that claim” may be)

  11. Holms says

    Holms, surely even you are finding this stuff tedious.


    Whatever made you imagine that I thought someone made “that claim”, so that it merits you claiming nobody made “that claim”?

    Not imagined: “Not all games’ gameplay depends on referees.” You are responding to something no one said or disputed.

  12. John Morales says

    Pierce, I figure Mano will let me know if I overstep.

    Pretty sure he knows by now I retort when one of the usual suspects bobs in merely to make a personal derogatory comment about me. It is unfortunate that the provocation comes so often, but that’s not up to me.

    Used to happen at school, too — the bullies keep goading some kid who then gets into trouble for retaliating. The idea is for the kid to suffer the bullying in silence. Never worked on me yet.

    Holms, that was not a response to any claim; thus the [OT] flag.
    It does riff off the topic at hand, of course, so it has some contextual commonality in the domain of game-playing.

    (Curious, though, how it immediately followed the previous OT comment, no?
    That one had zero connection to the topic at hand)

  13. sonofrojblake says

    #19 puts me in mind of a different bullying dynamic, and the teachers I’m friends with tell me the kids concerned are just the worst. It’s something that I only realised happened at my school in retrospect, only with the hindsight of adulthood can I recognise and identify those kids it applied to.

    I’m not talking about the bullies themselves -- teachers hate those kids for sure (and their parents, usually), but they’re (relatively) easy to deal with as it’s reasonable to directly object to violence, intimidation and so on.

    I’m talking about a relatively rare beast -- the kid who actively wants to be bullied. Ultimately, they’re to be pitied, because they’re starved of attention at home and think of violence and contempt as an acceptable substitute for friends, of which they have none. Teachers hate those kids the most, because there’s very little that can be done about them. But pity is hard to summon up when they are (and they invariably are) hateful, worthless shits that nobody likes.

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