Pity the poor referee. If they have a good, unobtrusive game nobody cares. If they’re visible then the criticism comes thick and fast.

The referee’s lot is not always a happy one and it is a job few of us would even consider taking on.

The weekend’s top football and rugby matches once again threw up more controversy, criticism and rancour as the man in the middle got it in the neck from all sides.

Having watched many of these matches, the criticism I have is a familiar one – consistency.

It was also interesting to note a slight role reversal – football’s men in black seemed to crack down very hard on anything or anyone who overstepped the line, while their rugby counterparts were for once often unduly lenient and negligent.

I’ll focus more on the rugby side of things and not just because Wales was on the receiving end of some questionable officiating in the 29-29 draw on Saturday.

Prior to the match the BBC’s commentary team spoke of the new directives issued to referees ahead of the Autumn international series. These included coming down hard on professionalism in a variety of forms – whether that is deliberating killing the ball and slowing down play, or even back-chat and the constant sniping that some players are guilty of these days. 

In the Wales-Australia encounter there were a fair few incidents where these supposed new directives were ignored by the referee – New Zealander Steve Walsh. On two occasions he signalled to Australian players to stop questioning his decision and on the second spoke directly to the offending player but offered no further sanction – yet the new directive clearly states a yellow card should have been issued.

There were two blatant pieces of obstruction, both picked up by officials. Although penalties resulted, again there was no further sanction.

Perhaps the most jarring moment came when Australia’s outside half Matt Rodgers took exception to be held off the ball by Gethin Jenkins and hit him full in the face. This happened in front of the referee and Rodgers was penalised, but no yellow card. Contrast that to a week earlier at the Millennium Stadium when Cardiff’s Gary Powell earned himself a straight red card after butting an opposing player in front of the referee.

England’s 20-41 defeat to New Zealand also highlighted inconsistency – not just the woeful decision of the “video ref” to deny Jamie Noon an obvious try so early in the match. Having sent Kiwi No.8 Chris Massoe to the sin-bin for 10 minutes for slowing down the ball, New Zealand were guilty of four or five similar offences while he was off the pitch. Although penalised on each occasion, no further action was taken.

New Zealand should have lost at least one, possibly even two, other players to the sin-bin and would have little reason to complain.

However, it often appears that referees are unwilling to take responsibility for imposing such sanctions.

This was particularly true in Great Britain’s unexpected but deserved triumph over Australia in the rugby league Tri-Nations encounter on Saturday. How Australia’s Willie Mason stayed on the pitch, despite the officials seeing two serious incidents of foul play – a punch and late tackle – is a mystery.

The fact that he has oinly received a one match ban after being cited following the game also begs the question whether officials are failing to apply their own directives.

Supporters are often guilty of going over the top in their criticism of officials. However, this weekend showed why they do get so infuriated.

Consistency is a quality that can be hard to achieve – it is the reason so many football and rugby coaches cite the lack of it as one of the hardest parts of their job. But when incidents appear so clear cut, then the lack of consistency becomes even harder to accept.

The man in the middle does have a thankless job. But he could also do himself a few more favours every now and then.


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