Overall, the experience was what I expected, with some high-level play and good knowledge and compliance by players. That being said, the three referees undoubtedly brought the level of play by being both strict and consistent. I was a little surprised by how informal the PR process was, but the three referees were all at the end of their season, so this may have played a role. With regard to specific thoughts on my experience on the pitch, I have broken it down into three categories – communication, technical observation and tactical considerations – to be in line with my weekly game planning and review process.
As an AR, this is probably the most important part to work on, as it is for a referee. The ability to communicate a point concisely and effectively can benefit, or hinder, a match. As I would do for refereeing, I feel it is necessary to practice phraseology that I would use as an AR, to ensure the seamless delivery of information during a match, particularly when circumstances (crowds noise and distraction, pressure) might alter your behaviour. It is important not to get caught up in the atmosphere and maintain your focus. One of the key things I noticed from all three referees was how concise their communication was. No extra words than necessary, just simple facts. This is even more important when there exist language barriers between officials/players.
- The breakdown happens much more quickly than what we generally experience in Canada, with the arriving players in particular being very quick to the ball. Therefore, the decision-making at this phase of play must be much quicker and decisive. It also required the referee to be much closer to the initial point of contact to be able to accurately identify the first infringement.
- While the speed of the decision-making at the point of contact must be quicker, it seems generally easier to actually get to the right spot and be in a position to make the correct call, as the structure of the play allows the referee to better anticipate the play.
- Set-pieces can win or lose a match at this level. While the set-pieces are important at any level, at home in the club level in Ontario and even at the National level, a team can make up for a poor set-piece with dynamic open-field play. However, at this level, the ability to maintain control of the ball is important and the team with more possession through a match tends to gain ascendancy. Therefore, winning possession of first phase is incredibly important.
o Scrum – Managing the gap before the engage tends to be easier due to the body positions of the front rows (much lower to the ground and leaning forward not back), which generally means the front rows are closer together before the engage. The key things to look for are that the loosehead hits up (or at least level) and that after the engage you must monitor the tighthead body position and bind. This was not new for me, but reinforced the way I have been looking at the scrum. I also learned the reason why front rows have started to align head-to-head before the engage – apparently this allows a strong front row player to simply use a turn of the head on the engage to create an advantage (this was something that former All-Black Steve McDowell showed me). From an AR perspective, the referees were very clear about what they wanted identified and communicated during the match (eg. Immediately radio if a loosehead doesn’t take a bind but puts their hand on the ground).
o Line-outs – a simple question of managing the gap, which makes identification of interference or gap-closing much easier. It is important for the AR to work closely with the referee and learn how the referee works (some prefer to set the gap at every lineout) so that the throw-in is only taken when the referee is ready.
- Foul play is dealt with quickly and strictly. There is no room for leniency. For example, if a player receiving a restart is tackled while their feet are off the ground, even if it is only a couple of inches and they land safely and are able to play on, if needs to be sanctioned (advantage can be played in this circumstance), to ensure the referee sets a standard. For foul play which may be communicated by the AR, it was clearly stated by all three referees that the foul play must be clear and evident (to more than just the AR, ie. Other players, spectators etc) and must be deserving of at least a penalty, which stands to reason.
- The referee and AR must operate as a team. The referees rely on the ARs to provide them with necessary and correct information and therefore expect, and deserve, accuracy. Preparation and debriefing is important to promote this, and the benefit of a clear pre-match briefing from the referee was strongly reinforced.
- You have to trust yourself. In pressure situations it becomes easy to second-guess yourself especially if, as an AR, you radio in that you have a flag for foul play, but play continues for a period of time. It is absolutely important to ensure that you focus on what you information you need to provide to the referee, and not deviate from this. Experience and trust in your own abilities helps immensely.
- Always bring your own communication equipment. Despite being an international tournament, with professional referees from England and France, I was the only one to bring radio equipment. While the local society had two-way radios available, my experience is that they do not provide any useful communication benefit. I fully believe that the open-mic radio set that I brought added significantly to the ability of the team of 3 to operate effectively.
- Camaraderie adds to the teamwork and trust between referees and ARs (this is nothing new but, again, reinforced what I already knew).
Overall, the experience was a very good for me. While, from an AR perspective, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, the importance of certain actions (communication in particular) really came to the fore in pressure situations. This is where practice is just as important for an AR as it is for a referee.
In addition to reinforcing the importance of specific roles and actions of the AR, I also picked up some very useful tools which I will use when I return home and referee.