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If rugby union’s much-vaunted values were ever to be written down as commandments then “thou shall not speak ill of the referee” would be chief among them. It can border on sanctimonious at times but the referee must be treated with the utmost respect and there is no place for criticism, however much it feels justified. To many it is a cornerstone of the sport but, like much of the game, it is beginning to feel antiquated.

The issue has flared up in New Zealand recently because two senior All Blacks, Ardie Savea and Aaron Smith, have had the temerity to question refereeing decisions in post-match interviews. Neither said anything that warranted further investigation by the authorities but that has not stopped the union from acting, as New Zealand’s team manager, Chris Lendrum, revealed: “We have raised particular matters around post-match comments with teams.” Suffice it to say that the next time Savea or Smith is interviewed shortly after a match they are unlikely to be so forthcoming.

In the northern hemisphere it is an ongoing issue too. The standard of officiating in the United Rugby Championship is much maligned, so much so that the head of match officials, Tappe Henning, recently hosted a press conference, urging patience and acknowledging mistakes were being made with differing interpretations by referees in Europe and South Africa at least part of the problem.

In the Premiership, it is a more familiar sight to see players marched back for backchat these days and evidently the Rugby Football Union is eager to clamp down on criticism or what it perceives as abuse. Two high-profile incidents include the punishment of the Northampton director of rugby, Chris Boyd, for comments made about the referee Adam Leal in January and the reprimanding earlier in the season of Anthony Watson for a tweet about a decision in Bath’s defeat by Wasps. The disciplinary panel overseeing the Watson case in November heard from the Rugby Football Referees’ Union, which highlighted concerns over the acute shortage of match officials at grassroots level following the pandemic-enforced layoff. It is an issue to which the RFU is paying keen attention because numbers have been dwindling and, as the old saying goes, there is no game without the referee.

Furthermore, just last week Wayne Barnes gave an impassioned and eloquent speech at the Rugby Union Writers’ Club anniversary lunch addressing the issue of criticism and abuse of officials and highlighting the plight of Nic Berry, the Australian referee lambasted by Rassie Erasmus during last summer’s British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa. It should be noted that Erasmus significantly overstepped the mark but equally he has swathes of supporters who feel he had every right to vent his frustrations.

Not long after Barnes’s address, Lawrence Dallaglio made a similarly heartfelt plea, urging governing bodies to raise the game’s profile and pointing out the absence of superstar names within the sport. That can only be achieved, however, if players are allowed to speak their minds. The key is to distinguish between players and coaches being vocal and vitriolic, because to prevent them from being candid is a dangerous route to take at a time when the sport is desperate for those very people to express themselves.

Nic Berry (far right) during the first Lions Test in South Africa last year.
Nic Berry (far right) during the first Lions Test in South Africa last year. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

That is not to say that they can only show their personalities by berating referees, but all too often in rugby union it feels as if the players are hung out to dry. It is an authoritarian move to attempt to stamp out constructive or justified criticism of officials entirely. To err is human and all that, but just as players are suffering the consequences of harsher penalties for high tackles – as seen with the recent flurry of red cards – when the margins are so small, so too should referees be held to account.

If players speaking out against officials is happening more often, social media has given supporters the platform to vent spleen. That is, unfortunately, not going to go away any time soon but there are ways the sport can help itself because, for a large section of the more fair-minded rugby public, criticism tends to be born out of confusion. In other words the issue is less that they disagree with a certain decision, more that they do not understand why it has been made.

Take the incident involving Calum Green and Joe Marler on Saturday as an example. Green made contact with Marler’s head shortly before the interval in Harlequins’ victory over Leicester but ultimately Barnes, in consultation with the TMO Tom Foley, ruled that the prop had been pushed, or “accelerated” into contact by his teammate Alex Dombrandt and that was the offence that ought to be punished. The end result was a Leicester penalty.

Viewers at home were informed that World Rugby is attempting to clamp down on players being propelled into contact by their teammates and a similar incident took place hours later in the United Rugby Championship clash between the Sharks and Leinster. Viewers were also privy to the conversation that took place between Barnes and Foley – informative and concise in equal measure.

Wayne Barnes keeps a close watch during Harlequins match with Leicester
Wayne Barnes keeps a close watch during Harlequins match with Leicester. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Those in the stadium, however, were none the wiser. Premiership Rugby has made a point of acknowledging that it needs to do better in explaining the “why” in its decision-making, using the example of Ealing’s recent failure to gain promotion to the top flight. Senior figures acknowledge the need to explain its reasoning better, to show its working, but the same logic could be applied to on-field decisions and it does not feel like too much to ask for those in the stadium to be given the same level of information as those watching on television. Criticism, whether from players, coaches or supporters is never going to stop but an understanding and an explanation of why decisions are being made may just help distinguish between the reasonable and the downright rude.