If you’ve ever been to a high school football or basketball game in America, then you know there are more than a few people who think they know how the game should be played and officiated. As a Hoosier (native of Indiana), I can tell you that probably most people in Indiana have a good sense of basketball. Not only that, we’ll tell you how to run the offense, when you should use man-to-man vs. zone defense, and when to call a time-out. We know the game, and we’re not afraid to let the coach or the officials know just what we think.
I say “we” in a general sense – most of us are actually pretty good, muttering under our breath when an over-the-back call is clearly missed or a blatant travel goes uncalled. We know our limitations and understand that while we can recognize a pick-and-roll, not all of us can actually perform it well. But don’t tell that to the few folks with the vocal cords to match their opinions! I’ve been to elementary school games where a few parents have genuinely spoiled the experience for everyone involved. It’s not fun and quite frankly, I feel badly for the kids no matter the team.
So when I discovered rugby, one of the first things I noticed was the lack of “coaching” from the parents and fans, and a greater respect for the referee. Of course, every now and then, there would be an exception to that rule, but for the most part we were all staring wide-eyed out into this vast field trying in vain to understand just what was going on. It was actually a huge unifier for parents of opposing teams – bonded as we helped each other figure out the game (I was on the receiving end of help for my first two years, for sure).
The most difficult part of not knowing about rugby was learning about the tackles. It’s one thing to be up in the stands many yards away from the field for a football game, thinking your son is safe because he’s wearing pads. It’s quite another to be feet away, hearing the tackling sounds, and seeing the “unprotected” kids going down to the ground. So, any “coaching/officiating suggestions” from the sidelines were probably geared towards hitting and tackling, because we just weren’t used to this and we didn’t realize that the tackles being made and the rules applied to them were so different from those in football.
The deference to the rugby referee isn’t accidental. It’s part of the Code of Conduct that we parents sign off on here in Indiana, and it is part of the rugby culture. Only the coaches are entitled to speak to the referee, and even then the opinion of the referee is respected. Parents are instructed to keep quiet on the sidelines regarding calls made. I have a great deal of respect for our rugby referees because I know how hard they work so our kids can play this game.
Referees need to be certified in order to work youth matches. And, your state rugby referee society may offer clinics from time to time for newer referees, or to help seasoned professionals understand rule changes. If you see a referee clinic offered in your area, I highly recommend that you sit in on the session. You will learn a lot, hear the nuances discussed in great detail, and perhaps have a greater appreciation for your local rugby referees.
In our club, we have a “culture keeper”, a designated individual for each game who maintains a cordial atmosphere. Luckily, we’ve never really had to remember who the culture keeper is for most games because we have a fairly good group of parents. In the event of a parent or fan speaking rudely to a referee, perhaps “suggesting” medical devices such as eyewear, he or she would be kindly asked to refrain from such talk, or be asked to remove themselves from the playing field.
I asked The Ref, Cody Kuxmann (an American Ref in London who also contributes to Rugby Wrap-Up), if it was any different in England. He said that “what [he’s] realized is there’s a lot more discussion here afterwards. [Perhaps] it’s a cultural thing, though.… English are polite in general, but the discussion can end up being ‘You were wrong; here is why I think so.’’ Cody feels “that America’s yelling is a bit different” and that “as talent goes up in America, it gets worse as more people know what’s going on.” In England, he’s “noticed it gets worse” but believes it’s more of a numbers game due to higher attendance.
I hope that our atmosphere doesn’t change too much when people get more familiar with the game. Personally, I like this culture, and I like just enjoying a match without feeling the need to coach it. So, if you’re a newbie rugby parent, remember: While you may be close to Michael Jordan in your knowledge of basketball, or John Madden with football, you don’t have to be a premier rugger like Jonny Wilkinson to enjoy the game. Just watch it for what it is – the most fast-moving, exciting contact sport on the planet. Oh, and give your rugby referee a thank you and a hug!