Referees’ Are Headcases

For many it has long been thought but following their recent development day it is now official, Navy Referees are Headcases or at least in a better position to help prevent a player becoming another ‘headcase statistic’.  Their recent training day concentrated on two of the most concerning aspects of the modern game, protecting the player in the air and the recognition and appropriate action if a concussive event occurs on the pitch or, as importantly, is thought to have concerned.  The RFU are at the forefront of the management of concussion and referees were taken through their comprehensive ‘Don’t Be A Headcase’ protocol.

Since the advent of professional rugby, the structure and complexity of the game has changed remarkably and rapidly.  With more rugby on the television than ever before, the innovation at the top of the game quickly percolates down to all levels and unlike in the Aviva Premiership your average Navy Referee, on a Wednesday afternoon, does not have the luxury of two assistants on an open communications channel, a Television Match Official, a dedicated timekeeper, a fourth official to manage replacements, cards and to bring the referee hydration or a fifth official as a ‘hot spare’.  With luck he might be able to cajole the two sides to provide someone to run touch but other than that he is very often on his own.  However the implications and potential consequences of injury are the same whatever the level of the game, as is the desire of all players, to stay on the pitch whether or not it is in their best interests. 

Navy Referee and National Panel of Officials’ member, Surg Lt Steve Woolley, led a thought provoking presentation and discussion on concussive episodes and their management.  The session was based on the comprehensive guidance provided by the RFU’s Don’t Be a Headcase guidance, all of which is available online, and is regularly being updated.

The other two topics covered in a full and productive day of training and development were ‘Refereeing the Assist Tackler’ delivered by the Referees’ Training Officer, Gaz Fairbairn, and ‘Protecting the Player in the Air’ from their Chairman and another National Panel member, Andy Coles.  With the current trend of teams looking to vary their style of tackling depending on game context the referee has to be more aware than ever as to the responsibilities and roles of every player involved in the tackle and in particular the ‘Assist Tackler’.  Getting this aspect of the game right goes a long way to providing a fluid game, where the ball can be played quickly, but good defence is still rewarded with turnovers.  Get it wrong and the match can descend in to a turgid affair with too many players off their feet and either continuous slow ball or no ball at all.

If slow ball prevails then it often follows that more kicking occurs and the aerial acrobatics come to the fore.  Often spectacular the repercussions can be serious when players are cartwheeled when high in the air.  For the match officials it is often a split second decision as to whether the two players were competing in the air or whether it was and illegal / dangerous challenge.  Anticipation, good positioning and awareness of ‘was it a reasonable challenge for possession?’ all contribute to getting the decision right.

A full day of debate and discussion is thirsty work.  Fortunately the Navy Cup Final was held that evening and the referees could partake of some of the Rectory’s famed hospitality before watching leading Navy referee, Duncan McClement, officiate the final, supported by Jane Pizii and Dave Prentice.  Resplendent in the Society’s new kit, the early tackles were clearly the focus of attention and transgressions from assist tacklers were quickly met with the shrill blast of a whistle.  After a couple of minutes one of HMS Seahawk players was left on the ground with a suspected head injury, cue Wilma, BRNC’s long serving physio, to be called over to assist in the diagnosis and yes the player could continue.  Already the training was being put in to practice.

The week culminated in another high profile match, officiated by Navy Referees.  Geoff Howells refereed Friday’s U23 Inter Services decider between the Royal Air Force and the Army with Andy Coles and Tim Bailey assisting.  After a slow and scrappy start (players, not Geoff) the game gradually came to life.  The Army were firm pre match favourites but were made to work very hard for their eventual victory which secured the championship win.  Geoff certainly contributed to the match, giving both sides the opportunity to play but also ensuring that the ball was not illegally slowed at the tackle and space denied through creeping offside.  Geoff has now refereed three of the four Inter Service levels, with only the Senior match missing from his CV.  Inter Service rugby remains a challenging but very rewarding highlight for any Service referee and makes the apprenticeship that all Navy Referees serve, refereeing Ships and Unit rugby worthwhile.

The Navy Referee society continues to operate at the highest levels but is always looking for new members to take up the challenge of the whistle.  With Navy officials regularly operating in European Competitions, the Aviva Premiership, National level and various high profile matches at Twickenham there are many opportunities to progress to the highest level.  However there is also the immense satisfaction in helping thirty players enjoy eighty minutes of rugby whatever the level of game and also whatever they say about you in the heat of the moment!

Anyone interested in taking up the challenge and becoming a referee should contact the Royal Navy Rugby Union Referee Society’s Training Officer, Gaz Fairbairn, his email address is just a click away.

Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones © Mark Andrews © John Walton

Duncan McClement refereed the Navy Cup Final
Good positioning for HMS Seahawk’s opening try shows off the new kit
Geoff Howells giving some instruction to the RAF U23’s Assist Tackler
If they don’t listen, whistle. RAF U23’s illegally slowing the ball down hear the shrill blast from referee Geoff Howells
A view from the side lines. Navy Chairman Andy Coles keeps a weather eye on offside
Gaz Fairbairn, refereeing the Royal Marines away to Eastern, is keen to hear from anyone wanting to take up refereeing.