After being involved in coaching and administering Junior Rugby for about 10 years, and being involved in refereeing for 14 years, I often get asked by both referees and junior rugby coaches what is the best way to approach refereeing junior rugby. There are some basic things that can be done to make the game more enjoyable for everyone involved I think, and they are some basic things from the perspective of both refereeing and coaching the game at this level. This is by no means the right way of doing it, as refereeing juniors is not easy, and maybe the sooner that some spectators realise this, the better. But I hope to be able to assist some referees and more so coaches that are not sure about how to approach it.
Here are some simple rules that I have applied over the years when refereeing junior rugby.
Rule 1 - Never Assume Anything
Referees are always taught to never assume anything, only to rule on what they see.
This is also true for referees refereeing junior rugby for the first time, do not assume that the players are aware of their requirements according to law and to the required technique for the game.
I always believe that the further down the junior grades you go, you are there in the middle of a game of rugby more to coach the players than to referee. Coaching and refereeing go hand in hand, and what better opportunity to show players how to correctly do things than in a live game situation. I always hear coaches say that there is no better way to learn than playing the game. You do not have to be a master coach to teach young kids how to play the game correctly.
It is often just simple things like getting the binding up at scrum time, or 'spine in line' at ruck time, or tackle time. If need be, stop the game and take 30 seconds to offer some coaching advice. I often see coaches refereeing rugby, and they seem to forget that they are coaches and switch off. I would argue that it is a golden opportunity for coaches to assist not only their own team, but the opposition as well. Assisting the opposition is important for a coach who is refereeing as this will then stop the opposition from accusing the 'ref' of being biased.
Rule 2- Play Advantage
Law 8 is the best law in the book, and it is often not utilised to its true potential at junior level. Most rugby played at this level is non-competitive, and mostly all the players want to do is get their hands on the ball and run with it. So who really cares if you play a long advantage and it does not work? From my own experience, I would say that about 80% of the time, you will get sufficient advantage if you are prepared to wait for it, and in the meantime, the kids have had the chance to play the game, the spectators have cheered on their team, and maybe a try has been scored. If you had stopped it, then you would have had to set a scrum, and maybe had another shambles on your hands, had players standing around, and spectators moaning about a referee that keeps blowing the whistle!
The only time that I would not play the advantage is from foul play, as we all need to stop this from being an issue in junior rugby. I strongly recommend to immediately stop the game when incidents of foul play or dangerous play occur in junior rugby.
Rule 3 - Safety
Never allow the game to be started or to continue when anyone on the paddock is in an unsafe position. This does not necessarily have to apply to players on the field, but it could be a young child wandering across the playing area. Do not be scared to stop the game as the last thing we want is headlines in the newspaper about a young child being seriously injured after being crushed by a rugby player. I do not care if there is a possibility of points being scored, stop the game. As a referee, it is partly our responsibility to make sure that the game is played safely and at the junior level this extends beyond the players.
Rule 4- Scrum Time
This is another important time to ensure that the game is played safely and to coach these players in the correct method of scrummaging. Very seldom have I seen junior coaches conducting live scrummaging sessions at practice, and very seldom do they get time to conduct these often enough. Always make sure that the scrum platform is secure and safe before allowing the ball to be put into the scrum. At junior level, never allow the front rows to go into a crouch until you as the referee have called 'Crouch and Hold'. Before you do this do this check the following:
- Make sure that the front rows are bound together properly, and the hooker is bound tightly onto the props. Do not let them bind up in a 'league' way.
- Make sure that the locks are bound together, that they have their heads showing through between the prop and hooker and that they have their eyes looking up. This helps to get their 'spines in line'.
- If there are flankers, ensure that they are bound onto the locks and not onto the props.
- Make sure the halfback is standing beside you with the ball.
Call 'Crouch and Hold', while standing at the tunnel entrance. Before calling 'Engage' ensure the following:
- Everyone is stationary.
- Locks are looking up.
- Front rowers are looking up.
- Front rows are square. This can easily be achieved by getting their feet in line.
- Everyone is quiet and listening. I believe if there is talk going on, then the players are not concentrating on the job at hand. Even at senior level, I quite often tell the teams that I will not call 'Engage' until everyone is quiet.
Call 'Engage' only when you are ready, and do not allow teams to engage before your call. Once the front rows are together check the following:
- All front rowers have their heads in the right position tucked under the opposing front rower's shoulders. There is nothing more dangerous than having front rowers heads pushing on top of their oppositions shoulders. This means that the weight of the scrum goes directly onto their spines. Very dangerous, and this is something that happens far too often at junior level.
- The front rowers have their bindings up. If you have to, lift the bindings up for them, so they can get the feel of where they should be.
- The scrum is stationary. Only then do you step away from the tunnel and allow the halfback to throw the ball into the scrum.
Offside lines at the scrum. Try to make sure that the players are well behind the offside line (last man's feet) at scrum time, and work hard to ensure that they stay there until the ball is cleared. By doing this, it gives the backs more time and space to develop their backline play. At the lower levels of junior rugby, there is no pushing in the scrums, so it gives you more time to concentrate on the offside lines as well.
Rule 5 - Lineout
This is one area of the game where we tend to make things far too complicated for all involved. There is one law in the book which makes the lineout so easy to referee if applied to its minimum at junior level. Law 19.7(k) states the following:
Metre Gap. Each line of players must be half a metre on their side of the line of touch.
If you have a big gap, then a lot less can go wrong. The metre gap means that players at the junior level should not be able to touch each other. The large gap gives the hooker a big target to throw the ball at, and if there is a big target then it does not matter if the throw is not straight. With no lifting at junior level, all the players like to compete, and with a large gap it gives all players in the lineout a chance to compete. Or if you're refereeing at a level where coaches are trying to develop blocking, then it gives those blockers more time and space to move into the blocking position.
Offside at the lineout
Just like the scrum, make sure the backs are well back: this will give the attacking team a chance to develop their backline skills.
Rule 6 - Tackle, Ruck, and Maul
This is a great opportunity to do some really good coaching, get there early and talk to the arriving players reminding them of their requirements. Use voice commands like;
- "Stay on your feet"
- "Join at the back"
- "Through the gate"
If need be, give directions to arriving players about where they should be joining. This is valuable for the players development. When the ruck or maul has formed, talk to the players reminding them of their requirements. Do not let them collapse mauls, which to them might just be tackle; do not let them pick the ball up in the ruck; remind them to use their feet.
Try not to let unconstructive play at ruck and maul go on too long. At this level, they can become totally disorganised and you are doing no one, including yourself, any favours by allowing a shambles to happen. There does not need to be an infringement to restart with a scrum. Blow it up, and say, "Unplayable, scrum, attacking team, throw in".
Rule 7 - General Play
It quite often frustrates me to watch junior rugby and to hear uneducated spectators and coaches make remarks about players being offside in general play. There are quite a lot of times in junior rugby, due to its fragmented play, when a player drifting back appears to pick the ball up in an offside position. Ask yourself before making this call: where did the ball come from? If it was from one of his or her own teammates, then yes the player is offside, if he was not behind the last teammate who played the ball. If it came from the opposition then the player is quite entitled to pick it up.
This also applies to players drifting back when a tackle is made, and the ball pops out for a retiring player to pick it up and run away with it. Remember the only requirement at the tackle for players not involved in the tackle is that if they want to join the tackle then they must do so through the 'gate'. Only once the ruck or maul has formed, do the offside lines come into play.
Rule 8 - Enjoy Yourself
When called upon to referee a junior game of rugby, do not get tied down by what people think should be happening, just remember that at the end of the day the important thing is to provide an environment where all players have the opportunity to experience the game of rugby regardless of shape, size, and age. I strongly believe that if you try and apply the above seven rules, and at the same time you are trying to enjoy it, then everyone involved will be better off as a result of your contribution.
Always try to smile and do not be scared to have a laugh with the players while you are there playing the game with them. It is also important to recognise good and fair play when it happens, and you as the 'referee for the day' are in the best position to do that. If a player makes a great try-saving tackle, or a great run to set someone else up, then recognise it by congratulating the player. If a player makes you aware of an injured player, thank them for it, or if a player does something for an opposition player that should be rewarded, then thank that player for it. It will help the game, as other players will pick up on it and try to play the game hard but fair.
Next time you have the opportunity, give refereeing a go, and if you apply one or two of the rules mentioned, then I am sure that everyone involved will be better off for it. Just remember, it is not professional rugby, but just some boys and girls that want a rugby experience, and hopefully you can contribute towards that.
It's That Simple!