Inside the RFL match officials squad: How referees prepare for the new season and the challenges of the job

It’s a thankless job but someone’s got to do it. Without referees, there are no games, and as Super League gears up for kick off, the men in the middle have been hard at work preparing to be the best they can be.

THE Super League clubs are all in the final stages of their preparation for the new season, but so are the group sometimes referred to as the competition’s ’13th club’.

So it seems like the perfect time to check in on Super League’s team of officials, who have a rigorous pre-season to go through just like all of the players.

As match officials senior coach (and former Warrington player) Dave Elliott says: “The days have gone where we’d be running round the park all day. It’s a lot more science-based now.”

The RFL have a team of nine full-time officials, who are all based at the RFL’s new headquarters in Manchester’s Etihad Campus.

Like at any club, there is a team around the team that takes the field, with five match officials staff (across coaching and operations) plus a further six support staff available.

They spend three days a week at the HQ, where they benefit from the facilities at the neighbouring National Squash Centre, including a gym and an indoor running track, to prepare physically for the grind of running up to 10km a game – more than the players themselves.

“The guys have a full day. They’ll come in at about 7-7.30am and work on their personal prep – anything from wellness to medical to hydration,” adds Elliott.

“They do a lot of one-to-ones. At this time of year there’s meetings around policies and new laws. Then they’ll do a combination of gym sessions, field sessions, education sessions. 

“We’ve put a holistic programme together where they spend a lot of time on the performance side around goal-setting, nutrition, coping strategies, social media, wellbeing, things like that.”

Much time, especially in pre-season, is spent in the classroom. There are often new laws to get to grips with before a campaign begins, and that has especially been the case this year.

The changes for 2024 include penalties replacing set restarts for infringements by the defensive team in the opposition’s 40 metres, a crackdown on flops, enforcing rules on square markers and playing the ball with the foot, and a stricter framework for contact to the head.

Liam Moore, who is currently regarded to be the RFL’s top match official having taken charge of the past three Super League Grand Finals, says: “We’ve done a lot of work as a group on some footage.

“Looking at the head contact framework for example, we’ve sat down as a group and looked at a lot of incidents. Is it a red card? Is it a yellow card? We come to conclusions on what we’re looking at, fitting it around the framework. 

“A lot of work goes into pre-season and it isn’t just the physical element, it’s the technical work. We’ve got to get some consistency. If I go out in round one and give a red card, and then a similar tackle happens in another game that weekend and it only gets a yellow, we’re inconsistent. 

“It’s trying to get everybody as consistent as we can. You’ll never achieve it 100 percent because no incidents are identical, but we do a lot of work to make sure everybody is on the same page.”

Once pre-season friendlies begin, the officials will bring footage from their own individual games and review them as a group.

“We’ll go through clips and talk about different scenarios,” says Jack Smith, who refereed last season’s Championship Grand Final and 1895 Cup final.

“Certainly this year we’ve been working hard on the tackle height stuff, the increased sanctions for direct contact with the head, and the other areas we’ve been working on at the ruck.

“It’s been interesting, since Boxing Day, how much it’s cleaned up in the ruck, certainly around the play-the-ball. It’s an area we were probably a bit sceptical on as referees, if we’d get the player buy-in and the coach buy-in, but it shows the work we’ve put in at club visits and the work clubs have put in when we’re not there to reiterate it.”

Those club visits are another important of the job. The full-time officials have been spending one day a week visiting teams, be it Super League, lower-league or even women’s and academy sides, discussing the new laws to educate the players or refereeing opposed sessions – valuable practice for teams and the refs themselves before competitive action starts.

Liam Rush, the youngest of the group at just 23 – it’s generally a young man’s game with the average age a touch over 30, compared to 40 for Premier League football referees – says: “At a club training session you can be involved in a game scenario without the added pressure of a crowd. The players get a chance to learn but we get a chance to as well.”

Those visits also have an added benefit. While it’s not a part of their programme, a key element of being a good referee is being able to build strong relationships with the players that are under their control on a weekly basis.

“I personally find that club visits help you build relationships. You’d speak to a player for longer than you normally could on a game day and you build up a rapport,” adds Rush.

“We’re all human, it comes naturally. There’s no pressure to build those relationships but it comes naturally to us.”

Rugby league often gets a creditable mention for the respect players show to officials, certainly in comparison to its round-ball cousin. 

It’s a source of pride for referees, and Smith says even some of the game’s more vocal characters aren’t as bad as it may seem: “Sometimes it gets portrayed in the media when players are talking to the refs that they have bad attitudes towards refs, but we really don’t encounter that much. 

“They normally ask things in the right way. The players are great with us on the pitch. Players like Sam Tomkins, the crowd get up and on TV it looks like he’s having a go at you, but he very, very rarely is.”

Of course, the same level of decorum is not always shown by fans, and the biggest challenge for any referee is to be able to rise above the noise and do their job to a high standard in a potentially hostile atmosphere.

While it is impossible for a referee to ignore when they have become the villain of the piece, maintaining concentration and not allowing that to affect their decision-making is the key.

“You notice it, but that’s part of refereeing, especially big games. You feel that pressure a lot more,” says Smith.

“You’re probably aware that you’ve made an error, from the crowd reaction or sometimes there’s a replay on the screen. As an official, you’ve got to put it to the back of your mind because if you’re dwelling on one error, you’re going to make three, four or five and before you know it your game has gone. 

“I think fans can live with you getting a decision wrong. They might not on the day, but when they take the emotion out of it they can understand there is going to be human error in a game. Even the best referees make mistakes.”

Referees accept that the job comes with scrutiny and have no issue with being held accountable for their performances, just as players and coaches are, but that can cross a line and become abuse, either at the ground or – more commonly in recent years – on social media.

“There has always been scrutiny around referees, that’s never changed. But in the last few years, it seems to have gone to another level,” says Moore.

“The easy thing would be to say that you don’t see it, but the honest thing is of course you see it. I get home from work and see my name is trending number three on social media! 

“The noise is sometimes deafening. I’d like to think I’ve got a thick enough skin and I’ve been doing it for long enough so that doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s the family side of it that probably does. That annoys me, when your family see it. 

“There are times when I’ve thought ‘why do I put myself through this?’ Thankfully as the years go on, they become lesser.”

The referees are all keen to point out that the positives outweigh the negatives of their chosen occupation.

Much has been said recently on the past culture of the department, with former top-level whistle-blower Richard Silverwood claiming it was “run by fear”. Steve Ganson officially left his post as head of match officials at the end of 2023, having been stood down for almost a year while an internal review of the department took place.

But the current crop say they are content with the environment and the wider benefits of the job. Rush says: “We’re talking rugby in a morning, talking rugby in an afternoon. They’re a great group of people to work with. 

“You exercise as part of your job and then you’re out in front of thousands of people on a weekend. 

“Without saying we’re the 13th team in Super League and being cliched, we kind of are really. We’re operating in that Super League environment, we’re training in the same way as Super League players do. 

“I love it as a job. You’re around like-minded people all day, training as part of your job, watching rugby as part of your job, and being involved in pro sport on TV. It’s brilliant.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 493 (February 2024)

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