The authority, the clown. The man in the middle, the b**tard in the black. The official we can’t play without, the cheat who ruins the game.

Respected by many, chastised by masses, analysed by everybody.

Really, who’d be a referee?

It’s a rhetorical question that is constantly topical, and indeed, it’s been quite a week for high profile decisions and frenzied analysis.

Lee Probert’s choice to adhere to the rules and book Leicester’s Demarai Gray lit a torch paper. A callous act of insensitivity, or an entirely correct, unavoidable decision?

The calls to defrost the ice flowing through Mr Probert’s heart were still in full flow when Owen Farrell’s attempt to behead André Esterhuizen promptly took over the internet.

The furore surrounding both incidents went viral, and yet the contrast was fascinating. Over two different sports, one referee was being pillared for properly applying the laws, another likewise for mystifyingly ignoring them.

And just to add a comical element to to the week’s proceedings, last night Raheem Sterling won a penalty for stubbing his own toe. Yes, it was as ridiculous as it sounds.

Of course, given this was Sterling, debate soon raged as to whether he should have owned up, insisted on a reversal of the decision and then booked himself for diving. The little blighter probably had the audacity to have breakfast this morning as well, a mere 12 hours after the monstrosity.

In truth there was little to debate, it was simply a refereeing howler and an amusing Twitter vine to boot.

But it’s the two former decisions that have prompted more relevant discussion, and that divisive word that for so long plagued the relationship between players and officials in team sports.


It is not always as straight forward it sounds. Interpretations will always differ, split second calls will vary. Talk forever about VAR, umpire reviews, and TMO’s, there will always be decisions that must be entrusted to the qualified man or woman in the middle. And sometimes we won’t like them.

Where anger is aroused however, is when confusion reigns over seemingly straight forward guidelines.

Starting with Probert, he handled an unenviable situation impeccably. Ignoring the obvious would not so much have opened a single can of worms but smashed multiple tins everywhere.

The recent events surrounding Leicester City have been tragic, horrific in fact. Probert would have been fully aware of that.

But it would have been wrong of him, patronising even, to have prioritised sentiment over judgement. Not to mention detrimental to his own standing within the FA.

It was hard not to sympathise with Gray of course, understandably showing emotion after the kind of week that brutally puts football into perspective. But we cannot crave consistency, and then expect emotion to blur the lines.

Whether ripping off your shirt in celebration should be deemed heinous, and an automatic yellow card, is of course another matter entirely.  

Over at Twickenham meanwhile, disbelief reigned as Farrell’s misdemeanour went unpunished.

Has rugby gone soft? Become too stringent? Plagued itself with soft dismissals?

Perhaps so. But you cannot set the disciplinary bar, only to drop dramatically below it because Angus Gardner didn’t fancy disgruntling folk at Twickenham. His reference to the phantom attempt to ‘wrap the arm’ as he meekly declined to award a potential match winning penalty, was borderline inexplicable.

And for what it’s worth, I’m a big admirer of Owen Farrell.

But no sooner had England began celebrating what was otherwise an outrageously gutsy test match win, the word ‘consistency’ was rearing its ugly head again.

One week, those lamenting new tackle laws are branded irresponsible for ignoring the physical dangers of modern rugby. The next, a blatant contradiction of those laws is overlooked. And it’s not just Danny Cipriani left confused as to why.

Therefore we had Probert, who as reluctant as he appeared, had the bottle to apply consistency and not let the sense of occasion sway him. Gardner sadly, did the opposite.

As for the Sterling ‘penalty’ incident, we’ll put that down a grave error from referee Viktor Kassai. A one off error perhaps, but a grave one. And it’s not untoward to say so.

Of course, if we were to widen the debate then it’s impossible to ignore the abuse so many officials endure. We’re all experts, we all shout the odds. I often watch sport locally and nationally and cringe at the verbal diarrhea spouted from the sidelines.

And yet referees should not be immune to constructive criticism. Players, officials, journalists, administrators, even supporters, all of us should be exposed to negative feedback providing it’s not made idiotically. An overly idealic concept perhaps, but queries can be made without triggering insecurity.

But while interpretations of laws will often differ, which maybe is half the fun of it, what helps immeasurably for players at all levels of sport, is the core of the rule book carries clear distinctions. Which is a roundabout way of asking for, yes, consistency.

And yet, even with the benefit of a TMO at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, if George North puts in a no-arm tackle on Israel Folau, then regardless of the reading on the richter scale, what decision follows is anyone’s guess.