RL Weekly: Referees, Respect And Flying Starts

Fulham's FA Cup meltdown shows that football has a lot to learn from rugby league with regards to respecting referees
15:00, 23 Mar 2023

Football needs to look at rugby league if its players are to learn how to respect referees. 

In fact look at either code of rugby and you’ll find players calling the man in the middle Sir. Look at football and you’d be lucky to find players calling the man in the middle anything vaguely polite. 

Aleksandar Mitrović’s inexplicable moment of madness at the weekend was unfortunately not really a moment of madness. It was the latest example of football’s ego-massaged millionaires not having the vaguest idea about respecting the game’s officials. So how does a sport like rugby league - with all its shortcomings - get this basic trait of professional conduct right on the field where football cannot?


James Child, a recently retired Betfred Super League referee, was an interesting listen on the BBC’s rugby league podcast this week. The Fulham implosion at the weekend reminded the respected rugby league official “how depressing it is” he said, of the social media abuse of the referee in the wake of that controversial game. “I don’t miss that part of it,” he added. 

Yet that’s just social media, the toxic pond of Twitter that allows hateful cowards the same platform as anyone else. There’s also death threats - Child had several investigated by the police - so why is it so different in the heat of battle, where players almost universally respect rugby referees in the way that footballers clearly do not?

A big part of it is the zero-tolerance approach. Any hint of dissent on a rugby field incurs an immediate additional ten-metre penalty that can undo all of your team’s good defensive work, and will often put the offender in the sin bin for ten minutes too. It’s what they call a “coach killer” and is inexcusable. The immediate punishment hurts the team, not just the player. 

If there was a way of imposing similar punishment in football - a 10m territorial gain on a free-kick is not always an obvious advantage - then there would surely be an attitude shift. Perhaps now is the time for football to strike off the back of the Mitrović mayhem and introduce a sin bin for dissent. 

There is, it should be noted, the very occasional contact with a match official incident in rugby league and often it is accidental in the line of fire. It is punished with a hefty ban regardless. Players as a result are ultra aware of their responsibilities.

But Child makes another interesting point about referee responsibility and how their own manner can influence the on-field atmosphere. 

Some Premier League referees have an air of confidence bordering on arrogance that can rile the players. Child says he and his fellow Super League referees work hard to be approachable. He believes players can get annoyed by a perceived patronising tone of the ref as much as the decision itself, and as such there needs to be a balance between authority and respect shown towards players from the ref, not just vice versa. And referees should also listen to what players have to say on the pitch, he feels. If they are that angry about something, perhaps they have a point? 

Not that that excuses any of the Fulham flare-up, of course. But it all goes to show how much football could learn from rugby in this regard, if it wanted to.

On the pitch we have two clear early-season form horses. Warrington look terrific, with Daryl Powell’s plea for patience during that horrible first season being rewarded with a stylish, powerful team that bears no resemblance to last year’s shambolic team of misfits.

And Catalans Dragons join the Wolves in a 100 percent start, already four points clear of a chasing pack lead by Wigan and Salford. 

Steve McNamara’s move for Wakefield winger Tom Johnstone appeared left-field, but the head coach is being rewarded for his shrewd acquisition with a hatful of tries. They will be huge favourites heading to Headingley to play Leeds this week.

Speaking of Leeds, their fallout with Kruise Leeming has become one of the stories of the week. The hooker was captain last season but lost his place in Rohan Smith’s starting side as they reached a surprise Grand Final. This year he lost the captaincy after Smith opted to go without one, and the player now wants to leave. 

He is likely to head to the NRL after being made aware of interest Down Under, a stunning turn of events for a player deemed way down the pecking order when Shaun Wane selected his England World Cup squad.

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