French referee sounds alarm over lack of respect for match officials

Rugby League World’s Treiziste Diarist Pierre Carcau welcomes the appointment of Benjamin Casty as referee of this weekened international clash between France and England, but notes that Casty has sounded an alarm about the lack of respect for referees in France and beyond.

The lack of respect for referees in France has always been an issue, just like in England.

In France, a famous 80’s film entitled “A mort l’arbitre!” (“Kill the ref!”) even told French spectators about the story of a football referee who was chased by angry fans and killed along with his girlfriend. A film based upon a novel by a British writer: Alfred Draper.

In 2020, a lower division football referee had an ear bitten by a player not satisfied with the decision of the official. This led to a local strike of the referees in Aveyron, near Villefranche de Rouergue.

In French Rugby League, being a referee has always been a hard job. I would almost say, even if I regret it, that problems with refereeing is part of the game’s DNA here. If you have been following French Rugby League for decades, you may know that the interrupted 1981 Championship Final between Villeneuve and XIII Catalan, yes that final used by our national media as an excuse to stop broadcasting Rugby League, was preceded by a refereeing crisis.

As they were not supported by the French Rugby League Federation regarding the sin binning of players, they protested by delaying the kick off of this ultimately poisonous final.

I thought times had changed. Various signs had led me to think that way; Mohamed Drizza, the chief of the referees in France was increasingly visible in the Treiziste media and his accurate comments about the game, the growing place he took in the Federation’s communications, made me think that, at last, referring in France had got the important position it deserves.

Plus, in the context of international games usually being a reserved market for Anglophone match  officials, we had begun to see some French referees  appointed for international games (Kévin DELAROSE, Geoffrey POUMES, Ludovic BERNARD, Benjamin CASTY, Alexandre GUED, Stéphane VINCENT, who were appointed for some games down under).

This cannot be considered a coincidence: French referees receive solid training. Younger generations are probably more at ease with English than their predecessors and they are also aware of how their colleagues in the NRL and Super League work.

But in March 2020, we heard about the kind of event that we are sadly familiar with; during a U19 game in Cavaillon (Southeast of France), a referee, Ludovic Titeux and his female deputy were both abused; according to the interview given by the Titeux for ‘Treize Mondial’, they were “pushed and struck”. This kind of incident was not an isolated event. Three years ago, Benjamin Casty, brother of former Catalans Dragons and Toulouse star Rémi, was knocked out by a player during a Coupe de France game: the player was banned for life.

Given this context, it is no coincidence that there were difficulties in finding candidates to referee games; some games were cancelled because no officials were available, and others can even be played with a local improvised referee.

Despite this negative experience, known by every stakeholder of French Rugby League, the problems were not solved.

And this is why Benjamin Casty sounded an alarm for next weekend.

On Facebook, the referee of the next France-England international made a strong statement.

“We have our backs to the wall. This weekend, every category of the FFR XIII’s competition will face a dramatic lack of referees. Everyone is putting the blame on others. This weekend will make people cry. I’m not here to teach people a lesson, I’m here to sound the alarm: action is need quickly.”

Casty’s point was not only to draw attention to the problem in France but also to defend, indirectly,  his refereeing colleagues elsewhere who were attacked in the media recently.

Given this situation, it is a miracle that, despite this hostile environment (and low wages), French referees are not discouraged and still want to fulfil their role. That shows their indefatigable commitment, a commitment that should be recognised by giving them a stronger role in the ‘elite’ of international Rugby League. Yes, why not to the highest divisions (NRL and Super League) and in the next World Cup? The appointment of Benjamin Casty as referee of the France-England test match in October is encouraging but needs to be followed by stronger signs.

In rugby union, they are facing similar problems, but at least referees like Romain Poite and Jérôme Garcès can count on international recognition and their performances are as closely followed as those of the French players themselves. It was not easy at the beginning but, against all odds, the conservative sport of rugby union was eventually more welcoming to French referees. But in Rugby League, French officials cannot get similar recognition.

Perhaps there is some economic reason because I do not see any others. This would be the right moment to send them a sign of support. The hope to referee in major games would be a form of compensation for what they suffer by giving their time in front of hostile audiences at home. On the other side, having British referees also sometimes taking charge of French domestic games, could be a way to reduce tensions. French union did so in the past.

And with a more diverse pool of referees to choose from (not only French, by the way), Rugby League could stand alongside other sports, without any inferiority complex; a sign that the greatest game of all is just as much an international sport as any other.