Blowing The Whistle On Dubious Refereeing
IT is as good as a vote of no confidence on the local referees that at least five of the nine A division rugby clubs prefer foreigners officiating their games.
An unending stream of controversial refereeing this season compelled members of the SLRFU Council to address the issue at a recent meeting – and in what clearly is a reflection of a deep distrust of local referees, five clubs favoured handing the whistle to foreigners.
The five, the Sunday Leader understands, are: Kandy SC, CR, CH, Havelock SC and the Army; the noes and abstainers: Navy, Air Force, Police and the Upcountry Lions.
It is too much of an irony that whilst all independent clubs are of one mind on the matter, the Service teams are either non-committal or oppose the move outright. Among the ayes is, of course, the Army, but given that it’s the soldiers who have been the most persistent critic of local referees, the defence service team couldn’t help but side with the clubs. There’s an exception among the noes too: Upcountry Lions, the new club whose chief patron is the Minister of Sport, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, and in whose electorate the club resides.
So it’s not difficult to discern a politically-inspired separation between those who approve and disapprove of the deployment of overseas referees. But before we delve into a possible political connection to this controversy, let’s find out why refereeing in recent times has been given such a bad name. The job, it must first be said, is presently at considerable variance with the old and noble adage by which it once lived: a good referee should not be seen, meaning he interrupts the flow of the game only when necessary, ensuring inconspicuous presence.
Contrast that with scenes of now – of players frequently questioning the referee’s decisions, of players abusing and even setting upon the referee – and you have a measure of how much face referees have lost before players and public. It’s a far cry from the times when players not so much as uttered a word of dissent to the referee, let alone posture; players’ reverence of referees was almost religious.
It is, however, foolish to compare referees of now with those of then – incomparable as apples and oranges. Back then the primary qualification to be a referee was that you ought to have been a former A division player or one-time coach. Hence the referees list of yore was made-up of the game’s respected figures: Dr Larry Foenander, Malcolm Wright, Brian Mills, Ashey Cader, Percy Perera, Miles Christofelsz, Dr. V C de Silva, Lt. Cdr. Darley Ingelton, Maj. Bertie Dias, Maj. C S Fernando, C H Seneviratne, Bentley Barsenbach, Mohamed Azain, DIG Daya Jayasundera; the list is long. These were high-caliber referees to whom the job was sacred.
It must be pointed out that referees of that time all had club affiliations, and so it wasn’t uncommon for a referee to officiate in his club’s tournament matches, Cup finals not excluded. But nary was a word of criticism spoken against the referee. As well, any request by a club to change the nominated referee was thought of as being rude and unethical, and duly rebuffed by the union. These days, however, clubs unhappy about a nominated referee are likely to voice their displeasure in the ears of politicians, and request redress – i.e. if the browbeating of officials fails to secure the referee of their preference.
Why today’s list of referees isn’t quite of the same caliber as of yore appears to be, at first glance, the utter poverty of past players. With the exception of the redoubtable Dilroy Fernando, long a regular member of the CR team in the 80s, and Nizam Jamaldeen, Police three-quarter of the 90s, the other present-day referees have precious little pedigrees, if any at all, as players. This is not to say that those without a playing-history don’t make good rugby referees, though history shows ex-players do a far better job.
But, with ex-players shunning refereeing – largely due to sensitivities evoked by fiercer club rivalry – there was no choice but to open the door to pretty much all and sundry, including CR’s one-time water carrier. The minion’s elevation is to be applauded, and that he has over the past decade frequently been assigned some key A division and inter-school games which suggests that his bosses have had no cause to complain about his performance – until last week that is. It is alleged he disallowed two legitimately-scored tries in last week’s Army v. Upcountry Lions game – and the Council, Thursday night, decided to suspend the referee, pending the findings of a three-man committee.
It is difficult to comprehend why a referee of ten years should be involved in a controversy over the simple matter of deciding whether a try was scored or not. Not once, but twice in the game – and that arouses suspicion. But, lest we rush to accuse the referee of being partial, in this case in favour of the Sport Minister’s club, it has to be asked if the errant referee is a product of the system, in which case it’s the system that must take the rap for the blunders of its member.
Under the old system, when the job was restricted to past A division players, all that prospective referees had to do before being handed the whistle was to study the book of rules and attend a few seminars. Back then, new referees were able to cut their teeth officiating B and C division tournament matches, as well as inter-school games featuring new entrants. In the late 50s and early 60s, Isipathana, St Josephs, Wesley Thurstan and St. Anthony’s, Katugastota, were just about finding their feet in a new sport – and were not always assigned fixtures against the established schools: Royal, Trinity, S. Thomas and St Peter’s. But I digress.
So, as we were saying, there was a stack of lesser-important games in which the new referees could’ve mustered experience before being upgraded to officiate in the more publicized games. Not so, the present-day lot. The demise of the B and C division tournaments and the emergence of the 60s’ new entrants to the top tier of inter-schools competition means new referees are now straightaway thrown into the deep end.
It is so fair to say that the lot of the present referees is far more challenging than their forebearers. That being so, it is pertinent to ask what sort of qualification rules is applied before the whistle is handed to present-day referees. “They have to attend specially conducted seminars, and upon completion of those seminars, a panel of officials chooses those who they think will make suitable referee – and appoint them so,” said Wimal Senenayake, Referees Society official in charge of assignments. “No; new referees don’t face an examination, oral or written.”
This means that the old system of recruitment, when the job was confined to only past players, remains unchanged, albeit that presently all and sundry are eligible for the job. This is hugely anomalous state of affairs to say the least – an anomaly that, one thinks, might’ve contributed to the refereeing infamy. It is hard to understand why successive administrations have not considered drafting a set of qualification rules for prospective referees.
“It is preposterous that present-day referees, given their pedigree, haven’t got any proof to show they are proficient for the job. Appointing referees without examining their knowledge of the game is pretty much like pulling anyone from the streets and handing him the whistle. All this criticism against referees we hear and read about so shouldn’t surprise anybody,” said an old-timer on condition of anonymity. “The problem of bad refereeing is going to stay unless aspiring referees are comprehensively examined and issued certificates entitling them to officiate at matches.”
Poor refereeing, apparently, isn’t the only reason. A closer looked at the list of supporters of and objectors to foreigners officiating local game suggests another reason. At the aforesaid recent Council meeting, one penetrative suggestion to avert criticism of referees was made: i.e. referees in government services (read those from the Police and the Defence Services) should not officiate in any game between a Services team and a club. Obviously, this infers that some politically powerful Service teams are wont to influence referees who are government servants. As well, the Sunday Leader understands that some referees have requested not to be assigned games involving certain politically-powerful teams.
“During some matches, a lot of threats and intimidating remarks are directed at referees by members of these (politically-powerful) teams. Their credo seems to be to win by hook or by crook,” said one coach, requesting anonymity. “To officiate the modern game is taxing enough, but when the referee has also to cope with intimidating threats from players, then, things become unbearable.”
If anything the presence of foreign players has made it even more intimidating for some of the local referees. “The foreign players are a far sharper lot when it comes to detecting referees wrong decisions – and they are now beginning to react, and consequently, the authority of more than a few referees has seemingly been undermined,” said the coach.
“If you’re suggesting that the presence of foreign players has brought about a sense of doubt and confusion among some local referees, you’re not going to hear any contradiction from me.”
There’s no better snap-shot illustrating that “doubt and confusion” than this one: A referee rules that a try was converted successfully, but whilst returning to midfield for the ensuing kickoff, he changes his mind and withdraws the conversion’s two points.
Whether it was the referee’s absent-mindedness, myopia or the chastening of a politician’s ghost that caused him to change his mind – well, you decide. Whatever be the reason, clearly, a whistle in his hand becomes, potentially, a grenade.