Crossing The Line In Rugby League: Referees, Respect & Pantomime Villains

Josh Griffin's sending-off sparked a social media pile-on
17:15, 19 Jun 2023

“Referees will always be that pantomime villain who is easy to vilify, but it’s the players who make it like that.”

A leading former rugby league referee has urged the sport’s top players to drive a change in attitudes towards match officials, after a weekend of controversy in the Betfred Challenge Cup.

Elite ref Chris Kendall was subjected to abuse both at the ground and on social media for sending off Hull FC’s Josh Griffin after the half-time hooter of the home side’s enthralling quarter-final defeat to St Helens.

Griffin faces a lengthy ban upwards of six matches for a grade F charge of “questioning the integrity of a match official.”


Having been yellow-carded for dissent as the players walked off for half-time, Griffin kept chirping at Kendall, who swiftly superseded the yellow with a red. Hull fans were furious, and Saints made the extra man count after the break to book their semi-final place, with Griffin now facing a potential tribunal this week based on the referee’s report.

Rugby players are generally very respectful of referees. Yet social media erupted in the wake of the incident, with many accusing the official of bias, arrogance, and of ruining the spectacle with an overreaction. Rather than blaming Griffin for losing his cool and speaking out of turn. It was a depressing indictment of modern culture, and a reaction so prevalent in sporting tribalism, where it is the referee who gets blamed rather than the perpetrator.

“Only one person instigated that and it was the player - so why are we blaming the referee?,” asks Ian Smith - one of the game’s best ever referees, in an exclusive chat with The Sportsman. “Chris right now is perceived as being a show-pony referee who makes it all about him, which is just bizarre. The players make it like that, they react to perception and decide to say something.

“I’ve spoken to Chris and he quite rightly decided he was not copping what he heard and gave the red card. People then say it is all about Chris Kendall, who is ‘antagonistic, arrogant, unapproachable’. That is questioning a personality that people don’t know. He is the least arrogant, most personable and non-confrontational person you will meet. It is players reacting to a perception that just isn’t true.”


So when does dissent become verbal abuse? It is a question many amateur footballers and rugby players have fallen the wrong side of on a Sunday morning, but according to Smith - who refereed over 300 Super League games during 12 years at the top - the answer is clear cut.

“Swearing to the ref is different to swearing at the ref. As soon as you swear at the ref, whether it is questioning his integrity or parentage or if it is obscene language, it is a red card. As a referee I always had players saying ‘F**king hell Ian, you have f**king missed that’ and that is different, it is industrial language.

“We can’t go down the football route where anything goes. If players call you a ‘f**king this or a ‘f**ing that’ or call you a ‘f**ing cheat’ and you decide to wear it, then where does that leave us? Whether it is a quarter-final, semi-final or final you are not copping that.”

Tellingly, Hull FC coach Tony Smith chose to back the official over the incident, noting that “I trust each and every one of the referees and they wouldn’t send anyone off without good reason.”

Yet that did little to stem the tidal wave of fury directed at Kendall on Twitter - a platform on which the referee himself is active. Despite none of the angry online mob having been party to what Griffin said, it seemed to be fair game to tell the ref - who had clearly heard it - that he had got it wrong, that a yellow card would have sufficed, that he had ruined the game. It is a facet of modern society that is so utterly bizarre.


“I was never on social media so it was to easier to avoid the abuse,” added Smith, who famously announced his own immediate retirement from refereeing following a game away from which he needed a police escort to ensure his safety.

“Chris is on social media and I really hope he doesn’t read it, and if he does then I hope he just thinks haters will hate. It is tough for self esteem and confidence when people question your integrity. You go into games wanting not to make mistakes and wanting not to be the centre of attention which players, fans and coaches make you. I don’t know how these referees cope.”

The media undoubtedly play a part too, it can become a very easy way to find a headline in a game if you bring the official into the spotlight. The BBC Sport Twitter account, for example, mentioned Kendall by name with the caption “wow” as they tweeted footage of the sending-off, instigating the inevitable online pile-on.

“Commentators and journalists make it about the ref too as it is a story,” adds Smith, who now talks about the mental health side of refereeing as a presenter with charity State of Mind Sport. “The old Sky commentators, Stevo and Eddie, used to say ‘it’s nothing personal, but if it is a bit of a dull game we need a talking point.’

“Big decisions sometimes follow you around. As refs sometimes you don’t want to be on television so you can stay away from the limelight. But Chris is on telly every week as a leading referee and controversy can often follow. Maybe it is a societal or cultural thing rather than a sport thing - social media in general, and a lack of respect in general, with parents, teachers, the police. But I think as a sport we are generally quite respectful of referees.”

Griffin has been in red-hot form for Hull FC, and will now discover the length of his ban at a tribunal on Tuesday evening.


*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change

Suggested Searches:
The Sportsman
Manchester United
Manchester City
Premier League
Sportsman HQ
72-76 Cross St
Manchester M2 4JG
We will not ask you to provide any personal information when using The Sportsman website. You may see advertisement banners on the site, and if you choose to visit those websites, you will accept the terms and conditions and privacy policy applicable to those websites. The link below directs you to our Group Privacy Policy, and our Data Protection Officer can be contacted by email at: [email protected]

All original material is Copyright © 2019 by The Sportsman Communications Ltd.
Other material is copyright their respective owners.