Rugby Refereeing To Improve By Learning From NFL

Few people will argue rugby is the hardest game to officiate of all modern day sports. The pace at which events happen along with the numerous sets of rules and perhaps more importantly the interpretations thereof, makes being a rugby referee one of the hardest jobs, not only in sport but perhaps in the entire world. To rub salt in the wound, the referee very seldom gets credit for his contribution if he did a good job, but gets hugely criticized if he, the referee, had a bad “game.”

With the above being said I believe World Rugby needs to make a radical change in how the game gets refereed. Not only for the sake of referees but for the sport as a whole.

In no other sport does the effect of the referee have such a big impact on a match result, like rugby. Referees, while mostly having good intentions,  have influenced the results of countless rugby matches in the past.

Perhaps the best example coming in the form of Mr Bryce Lawrence who famously knocked South Africa out of the 2011 World Cup. Note the part “Bryce Lawrence knocked them (South Africa) out.” In the 2011 quarter finals all parties agreed it was not Australia who won that day, but rather South Africa who unfortunately lost due to poor refereeing.

So bad was the performance of Bryce Lawrence that a Facebook petition was started and he eventually got recalled by World Rugby as an international referee. The video below shows the number of wrong calls Bryce Lawrence made that day, that influenced the Springboks World Cup hopes in 2011.

The above is but one of many examples where the referee has dictated the outcome of a rugby match. The good news is governing bodies have eventually started to take notice of the public outcry of poor rugby refereeing, which have sadly spoiled manier games in the past.

Rugby Refereeing To Start Improving

As a big American Football fan, it is of my opinion that rugby refereeing can learn a lot from the NFL. Infact I will go out on a limb and say the World Rugby Organization is currently studying the NFL as a solution to how poor rugby refereeing can minimize the impact of a game.

I say this due to the recent experiments world rugby has currently started to implement at lower rugby divisions. The experiments currently being performed by the World Rugby Organization , formerly referred to as the IRB , strongly correlates to some of the current NFL measures  in place to curb poor refereeing in American Football.

Rugby Refereeing experiments vs NFL rules

Multiple Referees.

As the saying goes everything’s bigger in, it is very hard to argue with that statement if “bigger” refers to the number of referees on a NFL field. If you are not familiar with NFL, some of the measures taken to reduce a referee’s impact on the game is to have 6-officials on the field,  any one of the six officials can make a call / decision if they spot a foul.

How Can Rugby Learn from the above?

While having six rugby referees on the field is certainly not practical, rugby is however starting to experiment with “multiple referees.” A 2-referee system is currently getting tested by the World Rugby Organization at lower divisions, however the impact of the two referee system and the success thereof is yet to be established.

I would however suggest an alternative to the “2-referee system” being tested. I would suggest having 3 referees on the field, all of which specializes in different areas of the game. I.E. I would suggest having one referee who specialises only in rucks and mauls, a second referee that only specialises in scrums and lineouts, while a third referee specialises in open and general play.

While it may be argued that the more referees are on the field the more stoppages there will be, thus preventing the free flowing style of rugby that we all so love, I would however argue the contrary is true. Having a referee that only specialises in his area will lead to rugby refereeing becoming more accurate and laws being correctly applied, instead of having more stoppages.

The Challenge System

In NFL aside from having 6 referees on the field, the coach of each team also has a challenge flag which he can use to challenge a ruling during the game, even with six officials laws are still applied incorrectly believe it or not. Allowing a coach to use the “challenge flag system” is a great way of completely eliminating wrong calls.

How Can Rugby Learn from the above?

Rugby can surely benefit from such a system. The good news is the challenge call is yet another aspect that is getting experimented with by the World Rugby Organization at lower divisions.

The current experiment allows the team’s captain to question the call, where the referee will consult with the TMO who will look for video evidence to see if a call has been missed.

With the current experiment in place a captain is only allowed one challenge per half, if the challenge is successful the team retains its “challenge call” while if it is not successful they lose their challenge call, which is very similar to the NFL flag system.

It is of my opinion that this new rule should be rolled out onto the international stage as soon as possible.

The Fail Safe System

If the above is not enough the NFL also has a review system in place. If neither of the 6 officials are sure of the ruling on the field, they can review certain plays such as touchdowns or turnovers via contacting officials at a review booth (essentially a TMO), which is located AWAY from the stadium, thus preventing officials from getting drawn into the atmosphere of the game, and the home crowd affecting the decision.

How Can Rugby Learn from the above?

While it might seem that the latter is unnecessary, I would argue having a TMO situated away from the stadium is of vital importance. Just think back to the recent 2-seasons of Super Rugby where many controversial calls have gone in favour of the home team. It can be argued that these controversial calls went in favour of the home team due to the Television Match Official getting influenced by the home crowd and atmosphere, thus not staying totally unbiased in his calls.

There has been rumours about world rugby considering to adopt such a measure although sadly nothing concrete has yet been established, so expect to see some more poor TMO rugby refereeing this coming season.


The good news is the World Rugby Organization have finally started to take note of the frustration experienced for many years by rugby fans from around the world, due to poor rugby refereeing, and have eventually started to experiment with various techniques, however how long we will have to wait before these changes gets applied is the million dollar question. Don’t expect any radical changes just yet!

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