Getting back out on the Sevens field
After my first experience refereeing I have spent another day at a Rugby Sevens tournament. Once again it was invaluable as a way to get more experience and once again I was surrounded by experienced referees and referee advisers who gave me some great feedback.
Top-Tip: Get close to play
The biggest piece of advice that was given to me during the day was the importance of getting close to play, especially at the breakdown. Sevens is a very fast game, and so the effort required is significant. But when I put that effort in during my second game, and was far closer to the breakdown, I was in far more control of what was going on, and of course far more able to see what was actually happening.
It’s tempting to ‘cruise’ around on the Sevens field, saving energy during a long, tiring day. The reality is you just have to be able to put the effort in and to keep doing it for the entire day. The players deserve and expect the effort, and get frustrated if they sense that you are not following the play as closely as you could be simply because you’re not fit enough. So more fitness training and effort from me required on that front.
Complex Rules and Confident Calls
This is a complex game, it can move quickly, it can get messy and the rules are sometimes less clear than you would like. One thing that I have learned is that is that, no matter what, you have to show complete confidence in your decision. Let me give you an example.
At one point in play a maul was formed (fairly unusual in Sevens to be honest). The played with the ball was held up for a few seconds and then managed to get his knees on the ground. At this point, I was unsure what rule applied. Is this now a tackle because the ball carrier has been brought to ground and is being held? Is this still a maul? Is this a ruck? Don’t forget all of this is happening in “Sevens time” i.e. really quickly. I decide that to treat the play as a ruck after a maul and tell the defending players to release the ball. I did this with a clear strong voice. The players decided not to act and I blew for a penalty. Again, strong whistle tone, clear language around what I had seen, and a good primary and secondary signal for ‘hands in the ruck’.
To be honest I still don’t know what the correct call was, and seemingly a number of my new referee colleagues disagree with each other. But the players did what I asked. The secret here then is to be decisive in these moments and be strong in all forms of communication – whistle, signal and voice.
Relationship between players and referee
A thing that is striking me more and more is the importance of the relationship between the players and the referee. It is so, so easy to lose the confidence of the players and as soon as that happens it is very difficult to recover the situation. Frustration within a team starts to build, tempers and energy levels rise, more events arise and the pressure on the referee builds and builds. I’m too new to this to have a good answer on how to deal with this. But I do have some thoughts on avoiding it.
Be consistent. There is nothing more frustrating for players than a referee that is actually being consistent. You will always get the “Oh you saw our knock-on then, but completely missed theirs”. But you’ll always get that, and a quiet word about calling what you see, not what the players want you to see can smooth things over. But applying laws differently for different teams on the same pitch is going to get messy very quickly.
Be confident. See the point above. Players, right from the first minute, need to be confident that you know what you are doing. Those first few decisions and how you communicate them are vital.
Set out your stall early. Be clear in the pre-match brief what you expect. Stick to it religiously in the early stages of the game. Communicate your decisions clearly. Cut out any back-chat early either by talking to players, or by walking a team back 10m early on if they are starting to be over challenging and vocal. It stamps things out quickly and stops a tome being set. Of course on many occasions you won’t need to do this because the initial tone is a good one and stays that way.
Dipping my toes in the water
Before you even start, make sure you look the part. Dress smartly and from the moment you get out of the car remember that you are the match official and act that way. Be confident, positive and clear. Your goal is that anyone sees you instantly knows you are the referee.
The first thing to do is find your changing room. Don’t wander around looking lost, find someone, tell them who you are and what you need. If they are not the home captain, then ask where the captain is.
Once you’re changed its time to start your relationship with the captains. Find the home captain who is going to be out with their team on the pitch or in the changing room. The following discussion points apply to both captains:
- Are there any issues you need to know about concerning the team?
- Do they have 15 players?
- Do they have a trained and experienced front row? Are they all over 18 (for a senior game)? Are there front row alternatives (note these may be starting players who are not in the front row rather than subs).
- When would they like the boot check and pre-match briefing?
- Are they going to the changing rooms before the match start? If so you will knock at 5 minutes and expect them on the pitch 2 minutes before the start time. Remind them what the start time is!
I have put a separate post on the pre-match briefing here.
On the pitch
The running lines between phase of play are still a mystery to me. In this particular case I was told I was running in a straight line from breakdown to breakdown. I need to get some help with this and will post on this site when I get some clarity.
One referee did comment to me recently that every coach and assessor has a different view on what the right position and running lines are.
Keeping the Break Down tidy
I still need to work on my mental checklist at the break down. In particular at lower levels the break down is pretty fiercely competed most of the time. At higher levels it is more usual for the defenders to stay away and form their defensive line rather than compete for the ball while it is in the ruck.
- Identify the tackler and tackled player.
- Has the tackler released the tackled player?
- Has the tackler moved away?
- Has the tackler played the ball before a ruck is formed?
- Has the tackled player made the ball available?
- Where is the gate?
- Are arriving players coming through the gate?
- Are players joining the ruck ahead of the rear foot?
- Are players attempting to stay on their feet?
- Watch for hands in the ruck?
- All set? Start to give yourslef some space and watch the defense ofr offside.
It all sounds so simple, but far more practice needed to make this checklist a reality. Right now, it’s untidy far too much of the time.
I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but once again the feedback that I was given today was to work on my confidence and whistle tone. The referee that I was working with today and said two really interesting things about this. He said that an assessor should be able to work out what is going on on the pitch just by listening to the whistle. Being able to tell between the tone for a scrum and the far stronger tone for a penalty.
He also gave me an example of where my tone had actually confused the players. I had given a penalty for a tackler not releasing and blew the whistle. The tone was too gentle and all the players assumed it was a scrum and started to come together to form up! As he said – the penalty whistle should be clear and loud enough to send the backs scuttling 10m away ready for a quick penalty. Definitely an area to work on.
Out of the classroom, in to the centre
Finally I am out of the classroom, out of the Laws book (which is now my bedtime reading!), away from endless YouTube training videos and match footage, and ……… in to the middle of a pitch. It was a bit of a baptism by fire.
Below is a description of the event, and more importantly what I learned from it.
Structure of the Event
This was a two-day 7s tournament involving a large number of teams, all of which were made up of adults. The standard varied from the Social teams, through Open teams to Elite teams, allowing various referees of different standards to get out on the field.
With three pitches running in parallel, and with ‘team of 5’ referees we needed a large number of us there. All in all we had eighteen refs on Day 1 and twelve on Day 2 when there were fewer teams competing. Alongside the refs we also had two RFU instructors to observe and coach as the event unfolded.
Enough about the event. What did I learn?
The biggest and best piece of feedback that I had during my first and second games was to concentrate on improving my presence on the field.
I wish I had a video to see things for myself, but everyone told me that I needed to be far more positive with the way I moved, the way I stood, the way I signalled, and the way I used the whistle. Apparently, I was almost invisible, shrinking away and being very tentative.
This is a loud and very physical sport. You just can’t afford to disappear when you need to be imposing yourself on the game. You need the players to be very aware that you are there and in control. That is what they expect, if you aren’t present, you are already heading for trouble. Of course you could be too much of an imposing force, but believe me, I am so far away from that I clearly don’t need to worry about taking this too far.
So I’m going to:
- Think about my posture and body language. Look confident. Be upright. Use strong, bold moves.
- Be very positive with the use of the whistle right from the start, and consistent use of it EVERY TIME that play stops.
- Use signals with confidence, once you’ve made the decision be assertive and very positive. You are in charge so do not hesitate, even if you are not 100%.
The Breakdown – memorise the routine
The area where I had the most difficulty during play was at the breakdown. Sevens has its advantages when it comes to the breakdown – there are far fewer players involved. On the other hand it is far more challenging because of the speed of the game.
Talking to one of the RFU instructors he reminded me of the standard drill.
- Where is the ball? There is no point watching the activity around the breakdown, you need to be watching the activity around the ball. That is where the important activity takes place, the activity that will interfere with continuity of play.
- Who was the tackler? What are they doing? You need to know who the tackler was, and you need to look for tackle assists. If you don’t know this then how are you going to make sure they release the tackled player, move away, and get back on their feet before they play the ball. And remember, the tackler can play the ball from any direction, the tackle assist needs to come through the gate.
- What is the tackled player doing? You need to make sure they are releasing the ball and not stopping the opposition from getting to it
- Is this a ruck or a tackle? In Sevens it’s quite often the case that a ruck does not form. Even so, make sure nobody is playing the ball from the floor, and make sure anyone approaching is doing so through the gate.
- Finally, in Sevens is that the ball quite often gets placed behind the tackle by the tackled player and then just sits there because he has no support. Remember, at this point the ball is playable by anyone from anywhere. Players do not need to come through the gate, and the ball is not in a ruck and so can be played with the hands.
Don’t watch the ball!
I also fell into the classic trap of ball watching rather than focusing on the play. This was particularly the case when the ball was kicked. One thing is for sure, you don’t need to check whether it’s going to come down. So keep an eye on the players and forget about the ball. That way you can think about offside and also look to protect the player catching the ball.
Positioning at the breakdown
Along with going through the mental check list above, positioning at the breakdown is also something I need to work on. In order to be sure where the ball is and what is going you need to start close to the tackle. Once you in control, backing away and moving to a 45 degree angle, behind the breakdown gives you a better angle and the ability to watch the offside line of the defence. All good in theory, but I am a long way from getting this right.
ARs and In-Goal Officials
We played with a full five-official team. This allows you to think differently about your position. If you think hard you can rely a lot of the team around you and not chase play incessantly. In fact, you really have to do this for this type of all-day tournament to stand a chance of making it all the way through!
Managing the game – the spiral of doom
The last game of the day that I refereed was a real lesson for me. Remember, this was only 14 minutes of Sevens but I still learned what it felt like to lose control of a game and watch it spiral away from me.
I wasn’t good enough at the breakdown, and made a couple of poor decisions when I didn’t spot an obvious call such as being miles offside when chasing a kick down field.
The players lost confidence in me, and started to push the Laws more and more, making it harder to keep control. Thankfully with only 14 minutes, this couldn’t get worse and worse, but it was a salutary lessons.
I need to think carefully about how to regain control in these situations, or at least to stop the slide. 80 minutes in the spiral of doom doesn’t bear thinking about!
The other thing I learned the hard way was that your equipment needs are different in this style of competition. There are some simple facts you need to be equipped to deal with: it is a long day (or in my case two days), it is probably the summer, you will be working hard. So:
- Do not bank on being provided with adequate food and drink. Take all you can eat and then some more, and take things you can eat quickly and will provide you with a lot of energy. This is all about carbs.
- Take fluids. Bucket loads.
- Take sun screen. I was burnt to a crisp even though it rained for part of the event and was cloudy for all of it. Two full days outdoors for an office worker is a shock to the skin.
- Get some AstroTurf boots. The ground is probably going to be hard, and you are going to be doing a lot of running. So short studs and light boots will be a big help.
One of the things I am sure I am going to be doing to gain more experience is acting as a touch judge or more likely as an assistant referee alongside a more experienced referee. So time to start doing some homework on how to do the best job I can in that role.
Get the rules straight
As an assistant referee, one of the key areas where you will be required to assist the referee as a touch judge is calling touch. The rules for this are particularly complex when you get beyond understanding ‘gain in ground’. The real complexity comes in areas where players are straddling the touch line when they interact with the ball, and how they interact (e.g. did they catch the ball or just hit it with their hands).
Line Ball You Call is an excellent video which looks at all of the complex variations around the laws for this aspect of the game (Tip – start about 5 minutes in to skip the set-up of the session).
Here are some tips about clarity of your decision.
First, do not call something unless things are clear. In particular think very hard before calling foul play and offside. If a player start onside and you are judging whether they then move offside as play progresses then you are very likely to misjudge the call. This is especially the case as the defensive line moves as a ball is played out of the back of a ruck.
If you do decide to signal for foul play then be clear on which player, team and offence you are calling. Take the seconds between signalling and talking to the ref to get things clear in your mind, You will lose the confidence of the ref and the players if you get this wrong.
Assistant Reeferee Positioning
An easy rule is if you are watching the same thing as the referee from about the same place then you are not adding any value to. Move! It may even be the referees fault because they have stood where you were and could have used you more effectively, but still move and think how you could get a different angle on what is happening on the pitch.
Do not end up on top of the action that you are supposed to be watching. The best place to be is 3-5 meters away. If you are too close you don’t get a wide enough frame of view to see what is going on around the play.
Try to stand still when you are needed. If you are running to keep up with play and then sense that your judgement will be needed (e.g. player approaching touch). Stop! You will get a far better view if you are stationary.
Lead and Trail Assistant Referee
A common technique used by a pair of assistant referees is ‘lead and trail’. The simplest way to think about this is to start with the direction that play is travelling across the pitch. The assistant who has play coming towards them is the lead. Their role is to move to keep in line with the ball. When their is a breakdown in play (a ruck or maul) then they should line up with the defensive line.
The assistant who has play moving away from them is the trail. They have the job of watching whatever is going on behind the referee, since the ref is likely to be facing the way that play is moving in. Look out for players offside of foul play between players who are not involved in the immediate play (e.g. players getting up from a ruck). When there is a breakdown this assistant should also move to the defensive line since they may be the lead in the next sequence of play.
Here is an excellent video on the role of the Assistant Refereeing (once again skip the first part and start 6 minutes in)
I was hoping to be in the referee team for a local U14 Rugby Sevens tournament this Saturday, but I just missed out on a place. However, I went to watch the tournament anyway and below are some of the things I learned from being there:
- Be confident in the Laws. The referees had had a pre-match briefing between themselves and had agreed or reminded each other of the associated Laws. They had become confused about the Laws at a kick off and were using a scrum at the centre of the pitch if the ball went into touch in-goal. This is actually a free-kick. Easy one to remember really, all sanctions at a kick-off in Sevens are a Free Kick. There aren’t even any options to offer a Captain
- Be prepared for a very long session. The tournament I was at took 4 hours. There was one pitch in use and a team of 5 referees who were also acting as Assistant Referees. So 3 refs were always involved in play. This gives you very little down time and taking on enough fluids and snacks is essential.
- Take a deep breath. Every single match was completely frantic, end-to-end madness for the first 2-3 minutes. Don’t panic, the players get tired and play slows down quickly after that. So dig in for the first few minutes and things will get better.
- The pitches are hard. Sevens is a summer sport and the ground is hard. Think about alternatives to traditional rugby boots. Also, be prepared for more injuries as players hit a hard surface.
- With so few players the ‘backs’ tend to creep at the scrum and lineout. Warn them and get them back a full 5/10m otherwise they are gaining a significant advantage.
- The ruck is far more straight forward than 15s. Players are more aware that they need to let play flow be releasing, and scrums tend to involve far fewer players. Interestingly, players tended to hold back when the ball came out of the ruck. Not sure why that was.
- Some 14-year-old boys are huge. I actually thought I had come to the wrong tournamen when I arrived. The variety in size of the players is striking.
It was a great half day of rugby. The respect from the players for the referees was outstanding. The quality of the play was very high. By the end all of the players were exhausted.
Hopefully I’ll get on the rota next time round.
After Day 1 of the Level 2 (Refereeing a 15-a-side game) course comes, er, Day 2.
The day was a similar mixture to the first day with a combination of practical work on the pitch and classroom work/discussion, with the timesplit into a morning of purely practical work and then classroom work for the rest of the day.
In the morning session we worked through what to cover in the players’ briefings and then a number of us role-played the briefings with the inevitable improvements as we all observed and learned from each other. As ever it was really useful to listen to current players to learn what they hear from referees and what they actually listen to. They also gave us some pointers to what players ask referees. Questions like:
- “When do you consider the ball to be out of a ruck sir?”
- “How will you mark the line-out sir?”
- “Can the eight raise his head to look around sir” and if you say he must keep a bind then “What do you see as a good bind sir?”
These questions are as much about getting clarity as checking whether the ref knows what they are doing. So be prepared for these questions and others. As ever, experience will help with this and I just hope I don’t get some someone who is out to make a point during one of my first matches.
I made sure I volunteered to do one of the early briefings to get over my nerves. It’s amazing how nervous even experienced players are when role-play is involved. Is it just me or is role-play sometimes worse than the real thing?
The main things I got out of the session were:
- The art of keeping things short and to the point for each part of the briefing.
- Brief the captains alone to build the relationship with them.
- Brief the scrum and fly-halves too.
- Your brief to the forwards has to include the Crouch-Bind-Set sequence. Even though they have heard it umpteen times before.
- Think carefully about language and tone you are setting. Using phrases like “….or I will be forced to penalise you” right at the start is not a message that is going to help anyone.
The Practical Part
For the practical part of the day we covered kick-off, tackle, ruck, maul, line-out and scrum. Each aspect was done with players (i.e. some of the group) acting out various scenarios and then stopping at certain points for us to discuss the Laws, what we would be looking for, how we would manage the situation and positioning of the referee.
Positioning is going to be a real challenge. It is hard to naturally find a series of positions which give you the best chance to see what is happening without getting in the way of the players. We had some classic mistakes where we had to decide where we would position ourselves and then it was pointed out exactly who you were in the way of, and what players were likely to do about it.
An easy rule of thumb is to stay out of the defensive line and to think about the lines that players will be taking to approach the area of play that you are observing. If you don’t stay out of the defensive line you are likely to be targeted by an attacking player who sees you not as a referee, but as a gap in the defence – if you are stood in the line, by definition a defender can’t be and so you are seen as a gap in the line.
One thing that I find particularly difficult is not the refereeing of what is happening (in a ruck for example) but also remembering where the offside lines are and watching them at the same time. This is particularly tricky at the lineout where there are multiple offside lines which change as the lineout progresses. The offside line for those in the lineout can change from ‘line of touch’ to line through the ball to back foot of a maul within seconds.
Back to the Classroom
After a morning of practical work we were almost across the line. The final part of the day was a discussion around game management covering foul play, making decisions about how to deal with foul play, use of red and yellow cards, and dealing with abuse by players, coaches and spectators.
And then that was that. We discussed future development and talked through how to approach your first match. Time to get on the pitch!
It must have made a strange sight. A bloke running around the football pitch (I know. I know) with a whistle, chuntering away and then occasionally shouting things like “Blue 3. Roll away”, then pointing in the air, blowing his whistle, making odd gestures and then running backwards.
That would be me the day after the Level 2 course experience.
I’ve been thinking about the challenges of the course and decided that as a new referee I really needed to get to a place where the sequence of whistles, signals and words was more natural, so I could focus on the game in-front of me and the actions I needed to take, and not trying to do something else which still feels unnatural. So, off I went for a bit of solo match simulation in the park.
It actually worked really well. I spent half an hour imagining a match, thinking about my position, then working through what I would be saying at what point and how I would work through the whistle-signal-talk sequence. I felt far more confident at the end of the day and it also gave me some homework as I realised in some situations I was unsure what the law said (Q – If there is a scrum penalty from a lineout, where is the scrum taken? A – 15m line on the line of touch).
Many things will only come with game experience, but the small things like getting signals and words in the right order, remembering to say what kind of advantage you are playing, remembering to give a number and colour when telling a team who you have penalised, will come more naturally with practice……as long as you don’t mind looking like a lunatic in the park.