Justin Marshall: Cut refs some slack

Former All Black halfback Justin Marshall in action two weeks ago, playing in the Otago competition.
Former All Black halfback Justin Marshall in action two weeks ago, playing in the Otago competition.

It's time for a little perspective and a little empathy. It's time we ease off this assault on referees.

No, you are not imagining this. I am going into bat for referees everywhere for the job they do under the most trying of circumstances. Yes, I hang my head in shame for all the verbals I've given them in my time.

Why now, you might ask? Well, you could say I saw the light in my second game of club rugby on Saturday, and it gave me a much better appreciation for the thankless job the man with the whistle does.

It's appropriate, too, to think about this because officials have come under some real heat in Super Rugby from coaches not happy with their lot in life.

Let me paint you the picture from our game on Saturday in Clyde. The referee turned up in his uniform and with his bag containing the two touch-judge flags because, at this level, he would have to make do with a couple of reserves to be his "assistants".

It takes a special type of person to turn up on his own and referee because he copped a constant battery of feedback throughout the game.

There was no help from the touch judges, and, of course, he missed a few things. But the thing that struck me, he was such a lonely figure. When I went to find him after the game to shake his hand he was already making his way out of the ground.

There he was, bag in hand, uniform still on, hopping in the car to head home. The players go to the clubrooms to digest the match but it's not so easy for the referee to relax and have a beer afterwards.

Too often when things don't go our way we want to point the finger at the referee. But it's not an easy job.

In the NRL, they have less complicated rules and it's an easier game to officiate. Yet they have two refs out there.

Rugby has more rules and fewer officials and we expect our refs to get every decision right. I know, as a player, I did my fair share of moaning, but I can't help thinking that our expectations are unrealistic.

Of course at the top levels the ramifications of bad decisions can be catastrophic and big calls can change the balance of a game, or even a season.

But it's not an easy task picking everything up. I challenge any players griping at refs whether they could do a better job.

Sure, they're paid to get it right, but nowhere near as much as players are paid. They're actually there for the betterment of the game; not to ruin it as a spectacle.

As a player, sometimes I'd come off the field thinking I had a bad game but thankfully my team- mates played well and we got away with a win.

But the ref can't do that. They are accountable, they're on their own and there's nowhere to hide. Sometimes they have an off day.

It hit me on Saturday what a hard and thankless job it is. This guy turns up, he's got no support, but he gives up his Saturday to referee a club game and puts up with what he had to.

Something had changed in me. In my first game back this season, I was terrible. I swore, I backchatted but I realised my expectations coming from professional to club level had been unrealistic.

So this time I grew up, shut up, pulled my head in and got on with it.

Then it struck home how vocal everyone was. He got his one cheer afterwards but by that time he was heading to his car.

Refs are there because they love the game but it's just not easy. What sport has as many rules as rugby? I can't think of one that's close. The breakdown alone can have up to a dozen infringements.

They have the hardest job in all of sport.

I remember having a dig at Jonathon White for a last-minute penalty that cost the Bulls a win against the Brumbies. I thought it was an impulse decision that affected the outcome.

Somebody told me he's a heart surgeon in Auckland. That's his job. He doesn't need to be out there but it's something he's passionate about. I thought 'Good on you Jonathon White', you've reached the top in your field, and in your sport.

These guys are doing a thankless job in the most difficult sport to referee. Maybe it's time we cut them some slack.

The Press