David Flatman: If a man like O'Shea criticises referees, I stop and listen

From the Front Row: O'Shea's achievement at Quins and his personality demand a lot of respect
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The Independent Online

I have tried my damnedest and I cannot think of one reason that would make me want to be a referee. My perspective might shift were the salary somewhere north of rather a lot, I suppose, but then I would surely be doing the job for the wrong reasons.

At least rugby's bewhistled brethren are not controlling footballers. Historically, they have been treated with respect. But the pressure on them could be about to increase.

After retiring last summer I took time to wonder just what it would take for me to become a referee. And before you all wade in, yes, stage one would be to roughly halve my bodyweight. Those guys can run.

But the changes do not end there. As things stand, the perception is that a referee turns up, does his best, receives feedback from coaching teams across the Premiership and acts on it, should he choose to. Now this perception might be a million miles from reality but, as time goes by, perception becomes reality if left unchecked.

Last weekend Conor O'Shea, Harlequins' director of rugby, decided to check it. There are different ways to view his post-match verbal attack on both the referee and the system in general.

I think the official was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think so because it was O'Shea who let rip. He is clearly a measured, considered man who, both through his achievements at Quins and his personality, demands an awful lot of respect; and one suspects that, had his side lost the match, he may have kept quiet for fear of accusations of sour grapes.

So for him to have exploded as he did implies that the end of his tether had been reached. No doubt the performance of Llyr Apgeraint-Roberts on the day fuelled him nicely, but his claim that referees are not sufficiently accountable refers to the feedback process.

This is not the first complaint about accountability, so the system needs changing, if only to alter a perception that has now become a reality. In an age when transparency is de rigueur, the men with arguably the most at stake and unarguably the loudest voices need to be placated.

Directors of rugby and head coaches seem to feel that, while they live and die by performances on Saturdays, referees do not. I do not see this placation as a concession, more as a reasonable move into the modern age. The thought of a referee and his assessor having a chat, deciding what feedback to act upon and what to ignore without publicly committing either way may, as far as we know, be fairy-tale stuff. However, as long as nobody knows quite what goes on in these assessments, such presumptions will continue to be made, especially at times of misfortune or stress.

A revised system of communication would benefit coaches and referees. Yes, the latter may feel more direct pressure but I am confident that, just like the players, the biggest pressure to perform comes from within.

The benefit to referees of increased transparency would – so long as they do roughly as they say they will (human error will, and must, never be removed from the game; after all, it is invariably how points are scored) – be a reduction in ammunition for directors of rugby.

If a referee or his assessor can show that feedback has been received, considered and commented upon – if not necessarily agreed with – the inevitable errors in matches will be deemed natural, just as they are with players, who are accountable every time they play.

I do not like referees being openly criticised, especially when they seem to have neither the chance nor the tendency to defend themselves. Every now and then, though, a voice joins in that makes me stop and listen. This time it was O'Shea.

The approach was brutal but it is as if he felt he would be heard no other way. And that is quite a crescendo for a man inclined to be so calm. So, for me to become a referee, I would want to help the directors of rugby and, by the same token, help myself.

Once a system was agreed and implemented, I would demand an instant, zero-tolerance return to the law that declares backchat illegal, be it from men on the pitch or beside it. Oh, and I might need a bigger jersey, too.