skip navigation
Home News Coaching Opportunities Schedule Standings Leagues Union Officers Referee Society

Referees: Risk Management for Officials

From the World Rugby:

Stop! Coaches, before you decide this will be of no interest to you, take note of the fact that if you also referee, you will be a better coach, and you will develop a broader understand of the Game.


It is not widely known here that in many of the major Rugby countries, and in all of Britain for example, the home team coach referees most schools and age grade Rugby . Also, in adult Rugby , the home club appoints its own members to referee its lower division games. Referees Societies simply do not have enough referees to go around.

1.  Introduction

As a coach, especially in Age Grade Rugby, the responsibility for refereeing may occur.  For very young players this requires sympathetic handling so that the game flows.  Rugby referees are in charge of a contact sport which involves physical contact.  Any sport involving physical contact has inherent dangers.  It is important to use the referee's authority in order to ensure that the Game is played within the Laws and as safely as possible.


Referees owe a legal duty to players and may potentially be held liable for an injured player if they fail to carry out that duty properly.  This section of the module will examine legal duties of the referee, standard of care and risk and safety management strategies including specific technical skills.


2.  The Referee and the Law

Legal liability is a possibility against which the referee must take reasonable precautions.

  1.  The legal duty of the referee

We all owe a duty to take reasonable care to avoid injury to those people whom we should foresee as likely to be injured in the event that we are negligent.  If our careless conduct creates a foreseeable risk of harm to others, negligence Law establishes that we owe a duty to take reasonable care to avoid the occurrence of the harm.


If a Rugby referee asks "who is likely to be injured if I fail to exercise reasonable care in the performance of my duties?", the answer is the players.


b.     The standard of care

Even though referees owe a duty of care to players, it is important to note that they do not risk legal liability simply because a player is injured in a game under their supervision.  In order to establish liability in negligence, it must be shown that the referee's conduct fell below the standard that might reasonably be expected of a person refereeing a game at that level and that it caused the injury that occurred.


A referee cannot be found liable for errors of judgment, oversight or lapses of which any referee might be guilty in a fast moving and vigorous game.


The threshold of legal liability is high, but it was crossed when an experienced hooker broke his neck in an under 19 game.  The evidence showed that scrums in that game had repeatedly come together with excessive force, that there had been approximately 25 collapsed scrums in the course of the game and that the player broke his neck in a third attempt to put down a scrum (immediately following two collapses), when there was once again a strong impact between the opposing packs.  At no time during the game had the referee insisted that the players employ the crouch-touch-pause-engage sequence.


The court found that the referee had failed to exercise such care and skill as was reasonably to be expected in the circumstances of a hotly contested game at that level and that he was liable for the serious injury suffered by the player.


Though it is small, there is a risk of legal liability on the part of referees.  It is essential for this reason, as well as the common sense desire to reduce the risk of injury in an emotional contact sport, to consider some basic techniques of risk and safety management.


(Officials comprise referees and touch judges.)


c.      Risk and safety management control strategies


i.        Physical facilities

The primary responsibility for ensuring that the playing enclosure is free of safety hazards lies with Rugby clubs.  


However, it is prudent for the referee to deal with certain obvious defects.  Check the following items:

  • That posts are padded
  • That if flag posts are used to mark the field, they are made of a flexible material so as not to cause injury upon contact and are properly placed in accordance with the Laws of the Game
  • If a significant number of spectators are likely to be in attendance, that the fields are roped and that the rope separates the spectators from the touch-lines and in-goal areas
  • That obstacles such as light standards which are within the immediate vicinity of the field are padded
  • That sprinkler heads are recessed and flush with the playing surface
  • That there are no objects on the field of play that may cause injury
  • That the surface is as level as could be expected and that there are no holes in the surface.  

Minor departures from this list might be allowed where they are pointed out to both captains who then relay the information to their teams, which can then decide whether they wish to play the game in the knowledge of any unusual hazards that exist.


ii.   The occurrence of injuries

The function of the referee is to ensure that the Game is played fairly within the Laws.  It is up to the clubs to have an emergency action plan in place and the job of the referee, beyond stopping the game in the event of injury, is to allow the clubs to implement their plan.


Unless the referee is also suitably medically trained, he or she should not be involved in the management of a seriously injured player.


iii. Safety checks of players' equipment

Prior to the game, the referee should inspect all players and replacements for the following:

  • Ensure that footwear includes standard studs as specified in Law, and that they are in a non-dangerous condition
  • If you observe rings and buckles, they must be removed
  • If referees observe illegal equipment such as braces, blood-stained clothing, or padded garments or head gear which do not meet the standards stated in the Laws of the Game, they should require their removal.

iv.      Safety in general play

The referee should apply the Laws relating to safety and in particular:

  • Players who suffer blood injuries should leave the game and return only when the referee is satisfied that the bleeding has been controlled and the wound satisfactorily covered
  • The match is suspended immediately if severe weather, such as lightning and electrical storms, threatens or occurs
  • In under 19 games, the under 19 Laws are applied
  • Foul play where observed is penalised and that dangerous play, especially tackles which are high and dangerous, is firmly dealt with.

v.          Specific technical skills

In managing risk, it is essential to pay particular attention to the higher risk aspects of the Game.  These include scrums, line-outs and the tackle.


Scrums have given rise to the greatest number of catastrophic injuries in Rugby .


At the junior level, the referee is considerably assisted by the under 19 Law variations, which have done a great deal to stabilize scrumming at that level.


Referees, especially those use to refereeing adult rugby, must be aware of the Under 19 Law variations and must adhere to these when refereeing this level of rugby.


Problems may be encountered more often in refereeing the scrum at lower levels of club Rugby , particularly if there is an imbalance in the physical strength, experience and skill among the front row players.


The referee's first priority must be safety for all players participating in the scrum.   Although it often difficult to determine the cause of collapsing scrums, the Laws of the Game provide the referee with the greatest support in dealing with this phase of play.

Scrum management

The referee's management of the scrum begins with pre-game and off-season preparation.


It is up to you to ensure that you understand dangerous scrummaging techniques, in particular:

  • Lowering
  • Popping
  • Excessive wheeling and
  • Collapsing.

Once the game begins, your priorities are to set the first scrum carefully and then to pay attention to scrumming throughout the game.


At the first scrum

Keep the players apart and let them know your expectations.  These should include instructing the front rows that you expect a stable, solid scrum and instructing them:

  • That you expect them to keep the front rows at a legal height (i.e..  shoulders above hips at all times).  That you require the correct sequence of formation
  • That the front rows to form no more than one arm's length apart
  • That the front rows crouch prior to engagement
  • That they engage after the referee gives permission by stating "engage".

Following this signal, the front rows can engage when they wish, as long as they do so reasonably promptly after the referee has given the signal.

Ensure that #9 puts the ball in without delay.

The referee should adopt a firm and positive approach right from the first scrum systematically checking for:

  • Incorrect binding
  • Boring in on #2, and
  • Downward pressure by one player on another.

It is important to assist the players to get scrumming right from the start and, if necessary, to penalise infractions.


After the first scrum

If scrummaging problems persist or begin to occur, the referee must continue to insist on correct formation, if necessary, slowing down the formation process.


Among the techniques that are available are:

  • Insisting on maintenance of the correct distance between the front rows prior to formation and penalizing any "charging".
  • Insisting that the two sides remain apart until the ball is in the hands of #9 and that the scrum remains stable until the ball is put in
  • When the referee detects offenders, penalize and, if necessary, caution or order off for repeated infringements
  • If problems continue to persist, consider calling the captains together or detaching the front rows, walking away with them and reminding them of their responsibility for the safety of all concerned.

Junior variations

Remember always to apply the basics:

  • A three-four-one formation
  • Ensuring that both sides have the same number of players in the scrum
  • Requiring that the correct engagement sequence is followed
  • No wheeling
  • No pushing beyond 1.5 meters
  • No holding the ball in after it is clearly won.

Now that the Laws have been changed so as to allow support of the jumper, it is evident that the jumper can be held up in a potentially vulnerable position some distance from the ground.  Because of the dangers of this, the referee should:

  • Recognize that it is illegal to tackle or interfere with an opposing jumper who is in the air and apply appropriate sanctions
  • Penalize barging, using opponents for leverage and the illegal use of an elbow on an opponent
  • When a jumper is supported, ensure that the hands of the supporter are not below the jumper's waist?
  • Penalize support players who do not lower jumpers to the ground safely.
Penalize players who:
  • Charge or hit an opponent without any attempt to grasp the opponent as the Law requires
  • High tackle and stiff arm tackle
  • Tackle players in the air
  • Discourage illegal and dangerous tackling