Benjamin Franklin once said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I’d like to add a third – rugby fans complaining about the referee after a game. And while this has often been painted as a particularly South African pastime, the fall out after the Rugby World Cup alone has certainly confirmed what many of us have long suspected….Saffas don’t hold exclusive rights to that unfortunate hobby.
One of the biggest complaints shared by diehard and casual rugby fans alike is the complexity of rugby’s laws, and the seeming inconsistency with which they are applied. This hasn't been helped by the aura of untouchable mystique that World Rugby has created around the men and women in the middle, with fans (and even coaches, it sometimes seems) receiving little insight into the rationale behind decisions, or how refereeing performances are assessed. Their intentions in shrouding refereeing in mystery and creating a culture that does not allow for questioning were good, I’m sure, designed to protect and encourage respect. But in the age of social media, it’s become implausible. Now, referees face a torrent of online abuse, in part at least because of the frustration of fans who feel they are being kept in the dark. Does this frustration make the abuse acceptable? Absolutely not. And it’s a giant leap to go from questioning a refereeing decision to threatening a person’s life. Those guilty of the latter are clearly unhinged (and would probably find some other avenue to express their lunacy if it wasn’t aimed at rugby officials, to be fair).
I imagine it was this context that motivated World Rugby to release Whistleblowers on RugbyPass TV on 1 February. The documentary follows the Rugby World Cup referees and gives unprecedented insight into their preparation for the tournament and specific games, how they are selected for each match, and their personal relationships. It may be an obvious attempt to humanise them, and their families, in the wake of the abuse they have faced, but it works. It’s one of the most authentic rugby documentaries I’ve watched in a while, and has the perfect mix of incredible game footage, fascinating insights into parts of refereeing I certainly wasn’t aware of previously, and real, raw human emotions. It’s hard not to compare it to the recently released Six Nations docuseries, Full Contact, which felt stilted and often contrived, and as if what we were given access to was heavily curated. Obviously the content in Whistleblowers is curated too, but it doesn’t feel that way. We see Angus Gardner ‘shadow reffing’ an imaginary game as part of his preparations – some may see this as the ultimate dedication to his craft (I’m in this camp), and some may see it as a sign that he’s just a little bit batty, but either way, it’s so genuinely cool that he was willing to be filmed in such a vulnerable moment. And if that wasn’t enough vulnerability, we’re in the room when some of the refs are told that they won’t be handling the big games, and it feels like we share in their crushing disappointment. Not to mention Jaco Peyper….Jaco nearly broke me while watching this, because the absolute heartbreak of his injury early on in the quarter final between Wales and Argentina was just palpable. On my patented scale of 1 (completely dry-eyed) to 5 (heaving sobs) used to rate the impact of all rugby content, including matches, I give Whistleblowers a solid 4.
The documentary is an important concession from World Rugby to lifting that veil of secrecy around referees, and hopefully it’s just the start of this. It’s also been done in such a way that it makes for truly compelling viewing. Of course, the refs featured talk about the abuse they’ve faced, but, for the most part, it doesn’t come across as a pity party. And given that the levels of online abuse increased even more after the World Cup (prompting the TMO from the final, Tom Foley, to resign), it’s a conversation that obviously needs to be had. Do I think all the perpetrators are going to watch this documentary and suddenly come to their senses? Of course not. It’s hard to imagine someone who thinks it’s okay to send death threats to a ref or his family over a game having the empathy or emotional intelligence to make that leap. Luckily World Rugby is also working to prosecute those they have been able to identify. For the rest of us, of course there are still going to be moments when we’re truly perplexed, or even angered, by refereeing decisions. Much lauded rugby values aside, no one is suggesting we all have a little kumbaya moment here. But maybe having some more transparency, and a bit of insight into the world of referees, along with some introspection into our own online behaviour, could make us just a little more patient. As Angus Gardner points out, “As humans we love certainty, but rugby is not black and white. There is grey.”