Whistling through chaos: Refereeing in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lankans have been in love with the oval shaped ball game for over a century. Since the first game which was played way back in 1879, though not the biggest in the world, the Lankans have developed a liking to the full contact, fast paced game, making it one of the most loved sports in the country.

According to World Rugby figures, Sri Lanka has over 103,000 registered rugby union players and has the seventh largest player base behind England, South Africa, France, New Zealand, Ireland and Japan respectively.

While the Island is blessed with an unending supply of budding young players thanks to a ferociously competitive schools’ league, unfortunately, not many pursue refereeing. A job that requires fitness, sound knowledge of the rules of the game and most importantly the ability of instant decision-making. Refereeing, despite being a physically and mentally demanding profession, is often a thankless job where your bad days are paraded around while the good that you do, tends to go unnoticed. Refereeing requires the individual to be headstrong and to be able to make decisions knowing that his every move will be thoroughly scrutinized. Alarmingly, there are only 75 active referees in the country – a number which equals a mere 0.07% against the total number of registered rugby players in the country.

The concluded 2018 Schools rugby season was marred by off field violence and scuffles, with angry supporters invading the playing field. In some instances, the situations have boiled over to the extent of manic supporters manhandling and hurling verbal abuse at the referees resulting in the Sri Lanka Rugby Referees Union deciding to refrain from officiating games, bringing the entire league to an abrupt halt.

>>Schools Rugby matches halted until further notice

Schools’ rugby in the Island is very keenly followed by enthusiasts consisting of students, parents and most importantly the alumni of the respective schools. The passion shown towards the game by these committed supporters has been the envy of many other sporting disciplines, however, there is only a thin line between undying passion and hooliganism. A line which has been crossed too many times in the recent past. While club rugby games are less hostile for the men with the whistle, they are subjected to verbal abuse week in week out by spectators who in most instances do not have a clear idea on the rules of the game.

Multimillion rupee budgets, high profile coaches and pre-season foreign tours fuel the expectations of the supporters who become convinced that the teams they back are complete and can do no wrong. When these fanatics are faced with a contest where the other team has an upper hand over their beloved team, every decision made by the referee against their team is deemed incorrect out of frustration and sheer desperation. It’s at times like this when the popular phrases such as ‘Refa Hora’ (referee is a cheat) & ‘line offside’ are chanted. Many of these sideline critics have very limited knowledge about the modern rugby laws and are the root cause of creating frustration amongst the spectators. It only takes one bad egg to make an entire group follow like sheep, eventually causing meltdowns resulting in unsavory incidents.

There have been plenty of instances where the referees have made mistakes which have affected the result of the game, leaving the fans and the followers of the losing team frustrated and aggrieved.  Parents, old boys and supporters need to understand that the man in the middle is only human and can make mistakes but that doesn’t give them a free hand to behave like hooligans in front of young kids, sometimes their very own, who will not hesitate to follow their example. As parents and idols of the younger generations, is that the example we want to set for kids, is violence going to be our mode of conflict resolution every time we’ve been dealt an unfair hand?

Respect is a key ethos of rugby, the game said to be played in heaven. Respect for officials, opponents, teammates and oneself is an absolute necessity for any rugby player. Despite the disappointments, heartbreaks and unfair calls that go against you, players are expected to uphold respect to all stake holders of the game. It is one on of the many, if not most important take aways one acquires by being a rugby player. Therefore, we often witness testosterone packed beast like men, literally bow their heads to the decision of the referees on field, even if they are not in agreement of it.

It is essential that the referees are held accountable as well, a mechanism needs to be put in place where the men with the whistle are reviewed after each encounter and given constructive feedback with a system implemented where the aggrieved parties can raise their concerns.  A popular response has been that the referees are human, and they make mistakes. While there needs to be allowance for human error, using this as a shield will have a negative effect in the long run. The fact that it’s a difficult and a demanding job is no secret, but one must realize that unlike in the past where refereeing was an honorary service, the current referees are paid for their services which demands professionalism in executing their duties.

Sri Lanka Society of Rugby Football Referees (SLSRFA) in the past couple of months have made huge strides towards introducing young referees to the fold, which is an encouraging move. Some of these young and upcoming referees who have shown promise have been granted overseas stints which will no doubt add valuable experience. It is important that the entire rugby fraternity support these brave young men who have taken up the challenge of manning arguably the most difficult job in rugby, by giving them time to develop as referees.