Sunday 19 October 2014

Why I'm quitting refereeing

Refereeing the scrum at Witney vs Amersham & Children, Saturday 17 April 2010.

I started refereeing rugby union in May 2005 when I did the basic foundation course at Oxford University RFC. I thought I could do a better job than many of the society referees who did the midweek college games in Oxford. A current Blue and one of my former teammates in the Oxford University U21s impressed me refereeing one of my college games. Jim Fleming, the former Scottish international referee, also inspired me. I used to read his column in Scottish Rugby Magazine and he refereed a couple of my games in Edinburgh when I was at school.

I've been refereeing for 9 years. I started with only a handful of games in my first season, when I was still more interested in playing. I learned to drive in autumn 2007 so that I could referee better games outside of Oxford and go on exchanges. Since the beginning of 2008, I've been refereeing every Saturday during the season.

During the summer, I stayed fit refereeing touch (aka touch rugby). I got to a high level with that, refereeing at two European Championships and one World Cup. But I gave that up at the end of this summer because I hated all the off-field politics and the people didn't make me happy. I also wasn't selected for this year's European Championships. This shocked me. It was disappointing and embarrassing. I was the top-ranked referee from England in 2012 and the 8th best in Europe. I didn't even make the top 72 this year! I still enjoyed refereeing on the field, but that wasn't enough to make up for all the other stuff I had to tolerate and deal with off it.

When I gave up touch, I also started to think about my future as a rugby union referee. This isn't a sudden decision. I've been thinking about it for a year or two and have discussed it with a handful of people whose opinions I trust and value.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've reached a decision.

This is why I'm quitting refereeing:

Because it doesn't make me happy. Because I don't like many of the people I meet. Because I won't get promoted above my current level. Because I don't want to become an assistant referee. Because I'm more excited by the prospect of spending my Saturdays with people I love. Because I want to go wild swimming and cycling and walking. Because I've refereed for 9 years and have passed the 7-year itch. Because I've given enough back to the game. Because I don't want to read the backlog of admin about regulations and directives and logic trees. Because I'm no longer on the Southern Federation. Because I don't have an official coach and won't get the same level of games. Because I won't get regular assessments. Because I got shunted around between 4 different coaches in 4 years. Because the one guy who stood up for me and got me good exchange fixtures is in Stoke Mandeville hospital rehabbing from a back injury. Because it would feel like a weight off my shoulders. Because the thought of quitting must come from somewhere.

Finding out I'm not getting promoted on to the South-West Group took away a big part of my motivation. I'm disappointed I didn't get Level 5 league games while I was on my best form before Christmas over the past couple of seasons. It has been frustrating to see other referees get promoted ahead of me. I understand that I didn't excel in the 3 Level 5 league games I got towards the end of the season - two of them meaningless: 1 in 2012 and 2 in 2014. I'm also disappointed that the guy in charge of the South-West Group only ever watched me once in person back in 2010.

I'm disappointed with the way I got dropped from the Southern Federation and that I didn't find out about it until late this summer. I feel cut off without an official coach and without anyone to fight my corner and get me good exchange appointments.

I've come to realize over the past couple of seasons that I might not go any higher as a referee. At the last few South-West Group training days, I haven't liked the sound of what Levels 5, 4 and above are like. The extra stresses from coaches, players, spectators and match observers. The different values in the game. The extra travel and mid-week preparation that's required.

The values thing is important to me. Why should I spend my time with people who don't share my values? There's also a hell of a lot of men involved in rugby and few women. No wonder the values get warped! The only women I've encountered over the past couple weeks at rugby have been barmaids, cooks and physios.

Why is it that rugby is one of the few spheres of life where you can still get away with age discrimination? Referees get denied promotion because they are "too old". They were only in their early 40s. This is not tolerated in most other areas of modern society. Why should we tolerate it in rugby - a game run by "old farts" (retired amateurs)?

I want to spend my Saturdays and holidays doing things that make me happy. And rugby doesn't make me happy anymore. It's become more of a habit that I just do because it has become part of my identity. I'm more excited to spend my Saturdays cycling, wild swimming, walking and talking with friends and family. I don't want to continue refereeing in Oxfordshire at a level that doesn't challenge me anymore.

I spoke to someone on the national assistant referee panel and I wasn't excited by the sound of what it's like. The abuse you get from spectators. The people you have to deal with. The favouritism and age discrimination. The extra travel. All that doesn't appeal to me as much as getting my Saturdays back to do what I want to do. I am intrigued to see what it would be like as a regular assistant referee, but speaking to this guy made me realize it's not for me right now.

The most common feedback I got as a referee is that I should smile more, that I don't look like I'm enjoying myself. Maybe they're right. Maybe I should be doing something else with my time that does make me smile. So that's what I'm going to do.


  1. At our little grassroots rugby club, I've just put in a complaint about a society referee who visited with his team and abused our ref. I think there are some wonderful people involved in the game, a lot of them are women and many of them are at the bottom level. Our club is great, I have to say and involves women in every aspect. So, if you do fancy getting your boots on and getting back to basics, you would be very welcome, no politics, just the game and a really friendly welcome. Enjoy all the other things you'll now have the time to do. Possibly a little drumming in there?

  2. Chris, very sorry to read and hear you are putting down the whistle. If you ever fancy returning to your roots and blowing your whistle on Tuesday/Thursday afternoon's on an Oxford University College field, we would love to hear from you. I hope you will be pleased to hear that the Oxford University Referees Society is now in it's fourth year, set up by the OURFU RDO as the Oxon Society could no longer supply referees, but it was also inspired by people like yourself and Dave Conway. Pretty much all college games and now covered by student referees, with a couple of guys form the Society still involved , but are members of our Society too. The game really can't afford to lose people like yourself, particularly for the reasons you state. Hope you might come and watch a game at Iffley Road soon - Wasps tomorrow night if you fancy let me know. Best wishes, Tim

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your kind words. Tuesday/Thursday afternoons are unlikely to be a good time for me while I'm working full-time in Charlbury. I'd have to use up my holidays to be available.

      I'm glad the university is developing its own referees and that Dave and I were some sort of precedent. How many of the referees are OURFC players?

      Yours aye,

  3. Glad you've been able to make a decision and that you're positive about it. Life goes in phases, and there's no point dragging out a phase that's doing its best to be over, even if it's a sad transition. Sounds like you've found a nice new phase to replace it!

    Also, very impressed at the headway you managed to make in a few years!

    Humans can be poisonous, especially in groups. Some more than others, and it's a shame that there was more than your fair share in the thing you liked doing.

    Best of luck


    1. Hi Joe,

      There are some tinges of regret in my decision, but there's definitely more excitement at the prospect of what's to come.

      I've thought for a while that "people" (i.e. groups of people) are rubbish; but individual people can be great.

      I reached a similar stage with my abortive DPhil. It just wasn't making me happy and just wasn't going to happen. And choosing to quit when I did changed my life for the better. Quitting can be a very positive thing and not enough of us recognize that.

      Yours aye,

  4. As a player at an Oxfordshire club, that was refereed more than a few times by you, please understand that, in my opinion at least, you were a very good referee and are a loss to the game.