Salford Red Devils v Leeds Rhinos Controversy: Stop The Abuse Or Lose The Refs

The Betfred Super League season has been blighted by abuse towards officials
13:00, 11 Jul 2023

This most wonderfully unpredictable of Betfred Super League seasons has developed a worrying sideshow of referee abuse which risks becoming a real problem.

After Hull FC star Josh Griffin copped a mammoth seven-match ban for questioning the integrity of referee Chris Kendall last month, the fury at officials has become an almost clockwork weekend appointment on social media, and it is deeply depressing.

Hull dealt with that Griffin brain explosion well, better than some supporters who felt inclined to set up a Crowdfunder to pay the player’s fine. Griffin has now left the club having not been offered a new deal, and will be at bottom club Wakefield Trinity once his ban elapses. Indeed it was the fan reaction to Griffin’s sending-off that became a bigger talking point than the incident itself.

Rugby players generally get it, and on the whole treat officials with respect. So how come so many fans do not?


The latest flare-up came at the Salford Stadium on Sunday, as the Red Devils narrowly lost a niggly game to in-form Leeds Rhinos. Both sides had a man sin-binned and Salford were made to pay for an 11-5 penalty count as they lost by two points despite out-scoring the Rhinos three tries to two.

“There was a lot of frustration around the stadium at the way the game nearly lost control or perhaps did lose control,” said Red Devils boss Paul Rowley.

He wasn’t wrong. A tiny minority of angry fans - Salford is a very proud and very welcoming family club - found their way towards the players’ tunnel at full-time and were able to hurl abuse at referee Aaron Moore and his team (which included his brother Liam) at full-time, as they were guided back to the dressing room flanked by security guards. It was not a nice way for anyone to end a day at work, and a scene that required timely and efficient intervention from Salford’s director of rugby Ian Blease.

Inevitably the anger then overflowed online like a tsunami of toxicity through the open sewer of Twitter. Fans wanted Moore’s head for each of the 50/50 calls that did not go their team’s way, rather than dwelling on what might have been had at least one of the missed conversions found its way between the posts. Moore was openly branded a cheat, a “dirty rat”, and the RFL urged to investigate his performance. At least one account, now suspended, wished Moore dead. Absolutely none of this is okay, and where does it stop?


For the record, Salford were massively unfortunate to lose this game, and at least one call - in the last play of the game, seemed to go against them. But that is no excuse to round on the ref.

Why the hell would a referee cheat? And what world do we now live in where it feels like fair game to make such a bizarre open accusation with no fear of repercussions. It is pathetic. Imagine being abused at work just for doing your job in a way that someone does not appreciate or agree with.

I spoke with Chris Kendall after the Griffin incident and he maintained that dealing with the vitriol he received in the aftermath was part and parcel of the job. He takes it stoically, and gets on with it. But why should he have to?  And what is the solution to restoring some form of respect that appears to have been completely lost?

Fans often demand greater transparency and accountability, and I would agree that hearing officials talk through their performance post-match in the same vein that players and managers do would be welcome. Referees should not be immune to criticism for making errors. But there is a lot of middle ground in between constructive criticism and abuse. And the point on accountability is nonsense. Officials are rigorously reviewed by their bosses and are arguably more accountable therefore than any player making a mistake in a game.

Perhaps the only way to stamp out referee abuse from fans is to work it into the IMG points system for grading teams? Now there is an idea. Social media diatribes from angry fans leading to the potential for points deductions against their team - a great idea in principle, but most likely impossible to police.

It is fine to be upset. We love sport, for many it is life, so when it goes wrong we feel it hard. But those emotions should never be channelled into anger at the one person without whom there is not a game.

When former Super League referee Ian Smith was told after a match between Hull FC and Leeds in 2010 that the police couldn’t guarantee his safe exit from the stadium, he decided life was too short and never refereed again. And the reality is that more referees could start walking away. They all have lives, other interests, other priorities, and if truth be told they are not paid enough for a persistent stream of abuse to be deemed “part of the job” anymore.


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