Never undermine the ‘Sir’

By Louis Ricard
Medill Reports

Sports fans and athletes have a few things in common. They’re both pulling for their team to win. They both tend to think they’re better than their opponent. And they both have a love-hate relationship with referees.

Those wearing the stripes have haunted fans and athletes for as long as organized sport has existed. But rugby is different. In rugby, they’re not referred to as referees.

Rather, it’s “sir.”

While rugby is growing in America, so is its officiating body. With no full-time paid referring jobs and growing expectations from fans and players, it’s hard being the individual holding a whistle in the midst of 30 people fighting over a ball.  

Referees have to teach the game at the same time they moderate it because younger age groups haven’t necessarily grown up watching, playing or hearing about the sport. Todd Ayer, a well-known rugby referee in the Chicago area – especially at the high school level – often encounters new players to the game that need help figuring out their role on the field.

“I enjoy the teaching aspect of it,” Ayer said. “I think the reason parents and fans don’t yell a whole lot – I hate to admit this – is because they don’t really know what’s going on.”

Ayer often takes the time to walk over the bleachers to answer any question parents or curious fans may have regarding certain rules or the general premise of the game.

Rugby referees are also on their own.

One referee for two teams willing to do whatever it takes to win. No assistant, no video replay and decisions needing to be made in a matter of seconds.

“It’s always easier to ref from the sidelines or from the couch,” Ayer said, “but when I’m keeping up with the play, there can be some shenanigans going in the back that I just don’t see.”

However, when Ayer does see some shenanigans, he is not afraid to blow his whistle. But unlike other sports, he doesn’t hear the player yelling in his ears and getting into his personal space. He brings the player to the side along with his/her captain and explains his call.

That mentality originates with international competitors who have been coming into the United States and transferring the culture of rugby to locals.

One of those is Martin Dunn, who moved to the U.S. from Ireland just over 10 years ago and now oversees the Chicago Rugby Referee Society. Dunn says that it all comes down to education.

“There’s always the old adage that rugby is played by barbarians, but when everybody’s off the  field, it’s a respectful game,” he said. “Everybody just went to enjoy the game, the crowd will cheer for both teams.”

Dunn says he grew up on those core values of respect, sportsmanship and love of the game. It’s something he’s tried to pass down to the younger generations since his arrival in the U.S, and he’s not the only one.

Ayer says that throughout his rugby journey, he has played with people from all over the world who taught their teammates how to play the game the right way, and that included how to talk to the sir. Ayer’s captain was from New Zealand, and always told his team to come to him instead of going to the sir, and that he would bring up any issues or concerns with the referee personally, which is how the rugby hierarchy works.

No one talks to the sir unless it’s the coach or the captain.However, rugby in America is growing faster than the game’s culture, and the rewards of playing the game can get in the way of the development of the culture, says Michael Ziegler, a Chicago Lions.

“Players are getting bigger, faster and way more skillful and smarter” Ziegler said. “Referees need more exposure to these types of games because it will only elevate them as an official as well.”

“Also, simply, we just need more of them.”

Learning from experience is what every rugby referee has to do, because they do not do it for money, fame or power. In most cases, they do it for the same reasons Ayer and Dunn do: To give back to the sport that brought them so much.

And while rugby referees will always occupy a special place in the sport, their growth and development is as vital as the players’, if not more.

Because without the sir, there’s no match.

Photo at top: A referee officiating a high-school JV state championship in Berwyn, IL. (Andre Toran/MEDILL)