The return to Rugby – a view from behind the whistle

2020 has seen some of the biggest changes in our daily lives since WWII and, whether playing or spectating, sport has had to adjust. 

With the return of Rugby to our screens, the threat of further lockdowns, the suggestion of new rules and regulations, we have teamed up with ACME whistles to talk through the return of Rugby with those, literally, at the centre of it all – the referees. 

We caught up with two world class officials in the form of Luke Pearce and Sara Cox to find out what it’s been like.

Looking back just six months now seems a world away, and the way topflight clubs, venues and officials now prepare for a game is vastly different. Luke explains what it’s been like for him and the biggest changes to his role;

“I’d say one of the biggest changes to our job is the preparation in the lead up to games. Every venue is highly controlled with only those who’ve had a negative COVID test allowed into the ‘red zone’. All of the players, staff and officials that go into that playing area have gone through a test giving us the highest possible confidence that everyone there is free of the virus. 

Referee, Luke Pearce during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Harlequins and Wasps at The Stoop, Twickenham on 28 Sept. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK/Gallagher.

“Everyone has their own system as to where they do it, however I go to our local Premiership club down here at Exeter. You have to take a swab which is sent to get tested, you get the results the following morning giving you the go, or no-go, as to whether you can officiate the game.” 

One of the biggest, and starkest, differences about the premiership is the loss of noise and atmosphere from the stands. The buzz and excitement that only a live crowd can bring to an event. But, has this affected the action, the intensity or the pressure on the pitch? Luke said;

“We have been spoiled over the years with such big crowds in the Premiership and European internationals. It’s a massive difference walking out onto the pitch, especially when you then blow your whistle and hear it echo off the back of Welford Rd – it’s taken some getting used to.

“When it comes to the intensity from the players, that is very much still there. It feels like everyone has been ready and waiting to get back out onto the pitch, and regardless of whether there are crowds or not – they are totally up for it.”

Sara Cox, who has recently become the first female official for the Gallagher Premiership with her role as Assistant Referee at the Wasps v Bath match last month, added;

“It’s really strange without crowds, I don’t think we can shy away from that. When it’s full and absolutely pumping, its intense with everybody looking over your shoulder. I think that naturally when you take that away, you do take a little bit of the intensity from the occasion.

Assistant Referee, Sara Cox during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester Rugby at Sandy Park on 9 Sep. Photo: Cameron Geran/PPAUK/Gallagher

“It’s eery when you’re there on match day and you can hear things across the pitch. It really is silent at times. I think that’s also been interesting for the players to deal with, but they’re pros – and have brought back some amazing rugby since the break.

“The players have come back after having a long time off and are full of energy. I’ve done a couple of support sessions with some of the Premiership clubs and they were absolutely full of energy and well up for getting back into it. I think they got to a point where they were saying all we want to do is just play.”

“For me when I did my first game at the Rec I had mixed feelings about the lack of crowds. On one hand, I would have loved the experience of a full stadium on my first ever Premiership game; but at the same time it was nice to focus solely on the game and not worry what’s happening with the fans.”

What about from the ref’s perspective. Is it easier now without the pressure of the crowd? Luke weighed up the positives and negatives by saying; 

“In some ways, I think having no crowd makes it easier to referee because you’ve not got that external pressure; but in other ways it makes it more challenging, as that feedback from the crowd can really enhance our role. You know you’re dealing with a big decision naturally when something happens, and the crowd go bonkers. Those 10,000 extra pairs of eyes can add pressure, but they can also help focus on those key decisions as well.”

Apart from the obvious atmosphere that a crowd of passionate fans bring, are there any differences to how you approach the game as a referee? Sara explained;

“To be totally honest, crowds or no crowds, when the whistle goes it’s situation normal. You are so focused on the job in front of you that you zone out everything else. All your attention is on the game and making the right decisions. There are a few points in the game when you snap out and are aware of your surroundings, and that’s when you do realise there’s no one there in the crowd – and that’s when it does feel a little strange.

“At the same time it makes you realise how lucky we have been with such great supports and big crowds at matches, it makes you realise that we shouldn’t take all that for granted.”

As part of the return to the sport, World Rugby suggested 10 law changes, however the RFU decided not to take them all on board opting to enhance the interpretation of the breakdown rules to keep play moving. We asked Sara how that’s affected the game;

“We’ve seen a refocus with regards to the breakdown where teams are being rewarded differently now, which has created a slightly different approach to that area of the game. It’s all good steps forward, and I think we were right to refocus rather than make any more significant changes to the laws. 

“I’m not at the end of the machine that sets the laws, however we are always refining the way the game is managed. It’s less common for this to happen mid-season, however this is far from a normal year!”

From the training pitch to match day; junior league to the premiership, what is it that makes a great ref? Sara Cox said;

“A lot of the skills to manage a game come with experience. At the end of the day we’re dealing with people so it’s about how you communicate with them. Just like an office, you’ve got to change the way in which you deal with different people and that’s the same with rugby players, you have to change the way you manage a situation depending on what’s happening in front of you.

“One of your biggest assets as a ref is your whistle. Like most, I use an ACME Thunderer and I’ve worked on the way in which I use it. It might sound strange to some, but there are totally different whistle tones for different times in a game. When you need a medic on very quickly – there’s a certain way you blow it, and EVERYBODY stops; all the way through to a light sound to indicate time back on. You do have to be aware of that as it is a huge part of your communication to players, and even staff and fans off the pitch.”

ACME introduced the first ever sports whistle in 1884, which after being tested in football, before quickly making its way into Rugby. Ever since, the whistle has been one of the most important tools for the referee to control the game and communicate across the pitch. Sara added; 

“When I was learning the ropes with my coach about 10 years ago, he said to me the way you blow your whistle, there should be someone in the stand that can’t see but can hear and understand what you’re doing. It’s true and when you get into the biggest stage the fans can’t hear your voice, so they’ve got to be able to rely on my whistle tone and the way in which you give signals. It can be a bit underestimated at times but definitely plays a massive role.”

ACME Whistles continue to manufacture the world’s leading sports whistles for officials and coaches around the world. They work closely with the leading officials across rugby, football, hockey, netball – just about any sport with an umpire or referee. Ben McFarlane, from ACME Whistles, explained; 

“We hear thousands of stories and experiences across sport about how officials use their whistle to communicate such a wide variety of messages. One that has always stuck with me was a blind rugby supporter who contacted us as he could still go to watch his favourite club play, and follow the action simply by the whistle technique of the referee. 

“That just goes to show how it’s not just a loud sound, but a way of talking to players, to communicate much more subtle and complex messages.” 

We asked Luke about the skills and qualities that make the best referees, to which he said;

“The technical aspects like learning the laws and the application of them can be learnt, but your communication and your ability to speak to people in different ways depending on atmosphere is crucial, and the way you use your whistle is huge to that.

“However, it’s no secret that the less we can blow a whistle and intervene in the game, the better because it means there’s more exciting action happening. When you break it down, the way you communicate on the pitch is key to how successful you will be in the job.”

Getting together for review sessions is now out of the question, but what’s it like to review remotely, and has it lost that social camaraderie and engagement between officials? Luke says;

“A day or two after any game we do a review, where we look through all of the decisions, and how we dealt with challenges the game threw up. Now, instead of getting together down in Twickenham, we do it remotely with assessors on Zoom. 

“There are so many games as everything has been condensed to fit in the end of the season, so the fact we haven’t got to travel to Twickenham for a meeting is great. However, the drawback is you don’t get the human contact with the rest of the team to discuss things ad hoc, the process has to be more structured to work online. 

“We’re starting to get back to Twickenham now, and you can see things gradually getting back to normal, but I think this will be reality for officials for a little longer yet, which is a shame as the review sessions were always a great way for the officials at the RFU to bond as a team.”

So, what does this all this mean for grass roots sport? Luke adds; 

“For me the beating heart of the sport are the local clubs and grassroots players. There’s nothing I enjoy better than going to my local club at Collumpton. That’s real rugby you know; that’s where everyone gets together, where they socialise and enjoy their sport and life. 

“How that comes back isn’t my department, but we’re getting there slowly. We have to recognise that it’s a balance; we have to be safe and make sure we’re protecting as many people as possible, but it’s also important that we find a way to bring back local clubs and not just for rugby, but for the wider community.”

Through any adversity there are always positive lessons to be learnt. What are the biggest plusses that we can take from lockdown and the pandemic when it comes to Rugby moving forwards? Sara began by saying;

“Firstly, it’s our ability to constantly evolve and overcome challenges that we have no control over.  When it comes to Rugby, we’ve all adapted, we’ve all evolved, and I think we’re coming out the other side all the stronger for it. It might be that we’re a little bit battered and bruised but let’s take stock – we have put players on the pitch; we have referees prepared and ready to go; we can watch games on TV and we’re starting to get crowds back into stadiums. 

“I also believe we are giving fans an escape; the chance to have 80 minutes where you forget about everything else and just enjoy the sport happening in front of you. 

“The final part for me as an individual, and as a sport, is that we have all been able to reflect and appreciate what we have in Rugby. It’s all too easy to take it for granted, and this time has allowed us all to re-appreciate our love of the game.”

Although there remain uncertainties in the return from Covid, it is obvious that everyone involved in the sport from governing body, to referees and players, are itching to get back to a sense of normality. For those who are keen to follow in the footsteps of Sara and Luke, where should they start? Sara says;

“To start off as a referee you’ve just got to get stuck in. I just rocked up at my local club and they were glad for the help. I did a bit at my school, but I’m sure my first proper match as a ref was a Boxing Day match up at Collumpton, my old club. I just went for it.”

There is no doubt that that the return back to Rugby has, and continues to be, challenging, yet the 

ability for players, staff and officials to get competitive sport back up and running, in such challenging conditions, is a huge achievement and testament to the versatility of everyone involved. ACME Whistles, Ben McFarlane, finished by adding;

“We are always looking at ways to improve and adapt, nothing is ever off the table, and that is just the attitude that has created a successful path for rugby to return to our homes. 

“A while back we even looked at electronic whistles for referees, but nothing has ever come close to control, range, versatility, simplicity and reliability of a traditional whistle. You can’t communicate in the same way with an electronic sound, in our view it simply didn’t even compare.”

To find out more about whistles for referees or coaching, visit www.acmewhistles.co.uk.

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