Why Are Rugby Referees Respected? (And Called Sir)

You just need to watch one rugby match to notice how much the referee is respected by the players. When referees award a penalty, you won’t see them surrounded by an angry team arguing their innocence.

And when a referee penalizes a burly forward who towers over him? “Yes Sir, sorry Sir”, is the standard reply.

Rugby referees are respected by players due to:

  • A culture and tradition of respect
  • Powers to punish dissent, including sending players off the field
  • A supportive governing body

Read on for the background and examples of respect in rugby toward referees.

Respect And Rugby Culture

The head of rugby referees in England gave an interview in 2012. Ed Morrison spoke about refereeing and respect.

In the game that has been handed down to us, the referee is very much respected. His decision making is accepted. That’s a tradition in rugby

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

The tradition he refers to is part of rugby culture. Respect for referees is ingrained into players from when they start playing the game.

It’s a popular myth that this is because rugby is played exclusively by players who went to elite private schools. That may have been the case in the 19th century. After all, the game is named after the elite private school of Rugby, England.

But rugby is played across all sectors of society now. And from the Welsh valleys to San Francisco to Samoa, referees are given the same levels of respect.

By the way, if you’d like to join a team but are worried that it might be an expensive sport – this article runs through the costs of playing rugby.

So, if respect for referees is part of rugby culture – does that make the players more enlightened than in other sports? Absolutely not! There are some very practical reasons as to why rugby players show respect to referees.

We can start with the considerable powers that allow rugby referees to enforce respect on the field.

Rugby Referees Have Powers To Enforce Respect

The rugby laws are clear on the subject: here is law 10.4:

All players must respect the authority of the referee. They must not dispute the referee’s decisions.

World Rugby Laws

I’m sure that other sports have similar laws. But rugby stands out as a sport where the referees penalize dissent. There are three types of actions that referees can and will take for dissent:

  • Carding and sending the player off the field
  • Reversing a penalty decision
  • Marching the dissenting player’s team backward

Carding players for dissent

Referees can issue a yellow card if a player disputes their decision. A soccer player may shrug at a yellow card as if it’s no big deal. But in rugby, a yellow card sends the player off the pitch for ten minutes.

This can have a very negative impact on a team, particularly when playing a stronger opponent. Between 2012 and 2014, South Africa averaged a gain of ten points against opponents with a player in the sin bin – except when the opponent was Australia or the All Blacks. A strong team in the England premiership league averaged 6.5 points (Saracens) over the same period.

Coaches and team-mates may be tolerant if a player incurs a yellow card for tactical reasons. What if the team is six points up with a minute to go and defending their try line? A player may not get a roasting from the coach if they are carded for lying on the ball.

Dissent is a completely different matter. Get sent off for arguing with the referee? Teammates will think the offending player is an idiot. And the coach may think they’re due an extended break from playing.

Reversing decisions

There’s nothing that fills a supporter’s heart with glee than watching a penalty reversed in favor of their team.

It goes like this. One of your players gives away a stupid penalty at the worst possible time. The crowd groans in disappointment.

An opposition player starts pushing and shoving, and starts a ruckus. Once the referee restores order, he may decide to reverse the penalty. In other words, he awards the penalty to the other side.

Your team committed the first infringement and now they get the advantage? Happy days!

Marching teams backward

When players are penalized, the penalty is given to the opposition at the place where the infringement occurred.

If the offending player (or anyone on the team) talks back to the referee or shows any sign of disrespect, their situation may get worse. The referee can move the point of the penalty forward by ten yards.

The entire defending team has to retreat toward their try line. This is known as being marched backward! Rugby is a game of territory, so it is a significant blow.

And this can be done repeatedly. I’ve seen a referee march a team backward a second time when a player has kept arguing. That’s a twenty yards difference, which is very significant in rugby. A kick for the posts may have been outside the range of the place-kicker at the original distance. And now it’s a three-pointer!

I’ve never seen this happen a third time. Because by then, the defending captain has dragged his truculent player away. And that player is likely to be subbed off by the coach as a liability.

Getting On The Wrong Side Of The Referee

We’ve detailed the ways that referees can penalize any form of disrespect to their decisions.

In general, coaches want their rugby teams to keep on the right side of the referee. There are a lot of different infringements in the game of rugby. Commentators are usually retired professionals, and even they are often baffled at the “direction” of a penalty.

You’ll often hear them say that a penalty could have gone either way at a scrum or ruck. Often, both teams have infringed. The referee has to make a split decision as to who infringed first.

In a perfect world, the fact that one team had dissented earlier in the game should not impact a later decision. It’s not smart to hope for a perfect world!

Supportive Governing Body

Rugby has an appeals process for red cards, as players must miss the next game for a permanent send-off.

Suppose that players were successful every time they appealed over a red card for serious disrespect? It would be clear that the governing body wasn’t serious about respecting the referee. The entire tradition of the game would change.

There was a high profile case in 2013 when the captain of England was shown a red card for disrespect in a club game. Wayne Barnes awarded a scrum penalty against Hartley’s club Leicester in the league final.

Referees wear a microphone in elite rugby matches. Barnes was heard to say that the player had called him a “cheat” (with an expletive). A panel from the governing body reviewed the offense after the game. They banned the player for 11 weeks.

This was particularly significant as it meant that Hartley missed the British & Irish Lions tour that summer. Those tours only happen every four years and are considered the pinnacle of achievement for British and Irish rugby players.

But once the ban was handed down, Hartley had a right to appeal it for a potential reduction. Hartley and his club chose not to appeal. At the time, neither I nor any other rugby supporter was surprised (except perhaps for ardent Leicester fans). The general consensus was that the governing body would back the referee.

Why Do Rugby Players Call The Referee Sir?

The tradition for rugby players to call a referee “Sir” goes back to the origins of the game in 19th century England. All schoolboys addressed their teachers as “Sir”, and teachers refereed the schoolboy matches.

It’s not mandatory in rugby, and some regions don’t follow the tradition. Players in Ireland and Wales are more likely to use the term “Referee” or “Ref”. Nigel Owens is one of the most well-known referees in the game. He is also Welsh:

When I was coming through the refereeing ranks in Wales, you’d never hear a player call you “sir”…I remember the first time I went on an exchange to referee a game in England when I was about 20. All the players were calling me “sir” and I felt very uneasy at it. “Don’t call me sir, I’m not a teacher”.

Nigel Owens, Welsh Rugby Referee

Although it’s not mandatory, rugby clubs may include it in their house rules. Here’s a club that spells it out for new joiners:

SIR is the correct name for the referee. There is only one Sir in a Rugby match.

Grizzlies Rugby Club Rules

Are Female Referees Called Sir?

The rise of women’s rugby has increased the number of female referees who officiate in the men’s game. Which begs the question!

How do rugby players address female referees?

Female referees in rugby are called Ma’am or Sir. The term “Miss” may be used but is not encouraged. Top referee Joy Neville advises players to “call me sir, mam, whatever, once it’s not offensive“.

Only Captains Address The Referee

You may be used to seeing players in other team sports surrounding a referee to argue about a decision. This does not happen in rugby, and there is a simple reason for it.

Only the captain can approach a referee and raise a matter of concern for the team. If other players have something to raise, they must relay this through their captains.

Even though captains can speak to the referee,  they have no right to be heard. The referee can tell them to go away. You will literally hear this in a match – and players have to retreat. Otherwise, they will be penalized and possibly shown a yellow card for disrespect.

The referee of course may speak to any player who infringes, but will usually call the captain over to hear the decision. Obviously, a scrum or ruck will have many players from both teams near the infringement. When necessary, the referee will tell all players to retreat – bar the infringing player and captain. Sometimes the opposing captain is beckoned to hear the decision.

“I don’t need you!”, is a common refrain from a referee who has decided not to encourage discussion about a decision. To be fair, referees nearly always explain their decisions. However, if this is the third penalty in a row for a similar offense – captains will get short shrift.  

Respect For Rugby Referees Compared To Socce

I’ve mentioned how players in other team sports may surround a referee to badger them about decisions. Of course, the sport I’m mostly thinking about is soccer.

I also mentioned a famous old quip about rugby, but I didn’t complete it. This is the quip in full:

Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. Football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans.

Sometimes misattributed to Oscar Wilde

As this is a very old quote, the type of “football” is soccer.

It’s too cliched to focus on the background of people playing the game. Sure, there was a time when only upper-class toffs played rugby while the working classes kicked a soccer ball. I won’t repeat the points in the section on rugby culture which shows that this is no longer the case.

So, I don’t think this quote is particularly relevant nowadays. But there is no doubt that players are far more disrespectful to referees in soccer than in rugby. And the reason is nothing to do with social background.

In my opinion, the difference is due to how each governing body regulates their game and supports their referees.

Suppose FIFA told referees to send off players for disrespect to the referee – starting from tomorrow.

Okay, let’s be reasonable. FIFA would need to run an informational campaign, and schedule the tough new policy for the following season.

Of course, there’d be a backlash from clubs, sponsors, and supporters when a superstar player is sent from the field in the tenth minute. Bat as long as there was consistency throughout the season, I’m sure that the hounding and badgering of referees would disappear.