Does rugby have a problem dealing with referees?

The days of amateur era home town refereeing are over. At least in the professional game! Referees are human, they make mistakes. I think we can all agree that those mistakes are not due to bias.

This season, there have been a number of coaches who excessively criticised the referee after games. Sale coach Steve Diamond, for example, is now serving a 6-week ban for comments about the referee. In this article, I will use Michael Cheika as the main example. Unfortunately, Cheika, in this case, is merely illustrative of a wider issue.

Michael Cheika is well known for his displays of emotion during games. Unfortunately, in Australia’s defeat at the weekend, he used the word cheat. On camera. About the referee. Ironically applauding the decision wasn’t a great follow up act either. There is a difference between expressing frustration and what Cheika was doing.

Cheika feels wronged over the disallowed tries for Michael Hooper and Marika Koroibete, as well as the Elliot Daly score. However, his anger should be directed at the silly mistakes made by his team. Kurtley Beale should have made sure the ball was out. Instead, he jogged across, allowing Daly to get there first. Hooper should have made more effort to slow right down before he went for the ball. Stephen Moore should have run a wider and deeper support line. Instead, he got in front of Koroibete, who ran into him.

So often the magician this season, Kurtley Beale was left wanting.
By, via Wikimedia Commons

Professional rugby referees are generally outstanding at explaining why they made their decision. Players and coaches may disagree, but they know exactly why each call was made. More and more, coaches are complaining about the referee instead of addressing matters within their own control. It needs to stop.

There is no problem with a coach who says he disagreed with a decision. Especially if he explains his reasons. However, there must be no public suggestion from the coach of bias or incompetence.

Cheika had every right to explain why he thought those decisions should go differently. He had no right to publicly call Ben O’Keef a cheat. Those who use the referee as a scapegoat for the mistakes of their own team are damaging the sport. Cheika is only the latest example of a disturbing trend.


Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.


  1. I am no fan of Cheika but I think people need to chill about words spoken in a heated moment. Do we really believe Cheika thought, in that very moment he uttered the word, that the ref was deliberately trying to ‘cheat’ the Wallabies? No, I don’t think so. The decision went against him (Cheika) and the first strong word that came to his mind was ‘cheat’. It might as well have been “fool’, or ‘are you blind’, or ‘idiot’. None of these words can be taken literally. Hear me right, I am not saying Cheika doesn’t deserve a sanction for mouthing off against the ref, just don’t argue he actually believed the ref was cheating.

    • Hi Willem, thanks for the comment. I think there is a level of disrespect creeping into the game towards referees. Do you agree? I don’t think Cheika really believes his team were cheated, of course not. If the article implies that it’s not by intention. Having said that, call me a one-eyed Englishman but I thought the decisions were correct each time.
      Have you seen his press conference after the game? Not his finest hour, and that’s after he had time to cool off. I also noticed he had a go at a fan (who probably deserved it), and the fourth official (who probably didn’t).

      • Hi Daniel. I read your article against the background of so much commentary out there about his use of the word ‘cheat’. Many suggest that he needs to be held to account for the use of that word. You said ‘there must be no public suggestion from the coach of bias or incompetence’, which I think sort of leans towards seeing it as his actual belief.
        Which brings me the point of ‘public’ suggestion. Was it public? It was not intended for the public. A ‘public’ suggestion would be in an interview, or in conversation at the after-party. I did see the press conference and I thought he was aiming at exactly this point: (paraphrasing) are people going to make an issue out of what I shouted to myself in the box?

        • Hi Willem, I had written the article with the belief that he said it out of anger and frustration rather than actual conviction. You rightly point out that’s not necessarily coming through in the way it’s worded, so mea culpa there! Unfortunately, while I agree the broadcasters perhaps should have shown some discretion, live on TV certainly qualifies as public. He knows that he is likely to be on camera during games, and I don’t think he would have half the trouble if he just shouted “Oh for F***s sake!” and hit the table as he has in the past.

  2. Hands up, I am an Aust fan. Cheika doesn’t help himself, but he is passionate and that what he showed on the weekend. His press conference was relatively moderate. He was asked the obvious leading questions – again and again – and he answered them. I am not sure how he should have answered
    them to the acceptance of some people. He does needs to tone it down but it would be a shame if passionate, heart on sleeve coaches were lost to the higher levels of coaching.

    • Hi MW7, I take your point that we want to keep that passion in the game. I don’t remember coaches behaving like this in the early days of professionalism, but I guess they weren’t under the same scrutiny. I do think there are plenty of passionate coaches out there who don’t get in trouble over the way they express it. Cheika needs to tone it down, as you mentioned. As an Aussie fan you have to be happy with the way he has turned you guys around yet again though! He is doing an amazing job on the coaching side of things.

  3. Yep, I agree that the passionate coaches add colour to the rugby scene. What worries me about the Wallaby camp is the repeated narrative that they are the victims of bad luck. In one of the camera shots Cheika throws his hands up in the air and laughs at the incredibility of it all, while the stocky guy next to him buried his face in his hands. We have seen this too many times to not start wondering how much of that thought process is perculating down to the players.

    • Did you see Hooper and Beale reacting to their yellow cards Willem? It was amusing rather than a big talking point, but it definitely fits with what you are saying.

      • I was very disappointed by the gross disrespect that they showed the ref. Not that it matters, but replays showed that he was right both times. He deserves an apology.

  4. A national coach needs to show control, he is a public figure and role model.
    What kind of message is Cheika sending to any youth watching the game.
    No matter how frustrating some of the Ref decisions SEEM to be, a certain standard of behavior is required.
    Perhaps more worrying was the behavior of Beale and Genia arguing with the ref over the deliberate knock on, and subsequent yellow card. watching the replay I was surprised at the tone of argument and demeanor from these senior Stralian players. Nothing wrong with asking the ref for an explanation, or offering mitigation, but 2 players round the ref arguing is not acceptable. Should have been marched back another 10m.
    IF there is an issue over refereeing inconsistencies creeping into the game, then world rugby needs to take the lead, give some clarity and provide a post match working platform for players and coaches to feed back to match officials and relevant governing bodies.
    Have to admit as a spectator I have been left scraping my head at some penalty decisions awarded or not as the case may be, without grater clarity of process the game will suffer in the long run.
    I am still left wondering why Georgia were penalized 2 yards out and under the posts in the dying moments of the Wales game ! anybody help with that one ??

    • Great points there Graham, hard to argue with any of it. I wrote the article not to have a go at Cheika or single out Australia, but out of frustration at a far wider problem. If we aren’t careful the respect for referees we pride our game on is in danger.

      Referees will make howlers, they’re only human. The Georgia pen might well qualify as one. I know I didn’t agree, but then I’m a fly half and love an underdog so my opinion on it doesn’t count for much!

  5. Great piece Daniel and I agree with all your points.
    Cheat is about the most offensive word you can aim at a referee and the authorities should reflect so when handing down his punishment.
    I love the colour and passion in the game but there must be a line in the sand and Cheika and Diamond both crossed it.
    If a team is constantly on the wrong end of decisions it’s unlikely to be all the different referees faults.
    Another issue which needs to be stamped is back chat on the field. It’s always been there but it’s becoming worse and more soccer like and none of us want to go down that road

    • Thanks Robbie! You are spot on, the back chat is clearly getting worse. As a start, I would like to see more teams being marched back 10 meters, that might help calm things down. I saw Will Greenwood say on this issue that players are in an aggressive emotional state during games. They are taught at higher levels to commentate their way through a game. That might seem like poor discipline on a ref mike, but sometimes the player isn’t even talking to the ref, just saying what he can see to his own team. I don’t know about that, but he’s a lot more qualified than I ever will be!


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