When the Rugby Football League furloughed its refereeing department shortly after the suspension of the domestic league season last month, its nine full-time officials and numerous support staff suddenly found themselves stood down. While the players’ welfare has been in the spotlight during the pandemic, the men in the middle will be no different but face an arguably more daunting task to be ready when the time comes to start up again.
“I guess it’s easy to think these lads aren’t human at times when they’re getting horrendous abuse from the terraces, but they need supporting as much as the players do,” says the RFL’s head of match officials, Steve Ganson.
A full-time referee earns considerably less than an average Super League player, but is still subject to a gruelling conditioning to meet the demands of officiating an often relentless sport. Players have been given training schedules and even equipment to keep them in shape, but the referees have far fewer resources at their disposal.
“When they get furloughed, it means we can’t send them training programmes,” says Ganson, a former high-profile official. “They’ve got to adapt, use their own initiative and be professional. They know we’re going to need them on form when they come back because it’s going to be chaotic, but I’m confident in the commitment they show that they will return from this strongly.”
Some referees have been busier than others during lockdown. Chris Kendall, who officiated the Super League Grand final last year, has filled his impromptu off-season with running, cycling and, perhaps most importantly, community spirit aplenty in his hometown of Huddersfield.
“Myself and my girlfriend have both signed up for the NHS volunteer scheme and our local council are wanting volunteers, too,” he says. “We’ve got some elderly neighbours who we’re delivering food and daily essentials to. I just want to keep people going throughout these difficult times; what I’m doing is pretty insignificant compared to the frontline workers.”
With rugby league likely to play multiple games each week when the season eventually returns, officials will see their workload doubled, plus there is added mental pressure. “They run around six or seven miles a game on average, but they will have hundreds of rucks and plays to rule over too, plus the abuse and pressure which comes with the territory,” Ganson says.
“The mental toll officiating takes on you is enormous. We have a psychologist who works with the full-time officials and he will be crucial to look after their mental wellbeing when we start again. If they’re officiating two or three games a week, we will have to dramatically change our training. There will have to be a welfare programme there for them and we’ll ensure they’re ready.”
Kendall agrees there will need to be a considered approach to how referees can cope with the fresh demands placed on them. “We’re the pantomime villains to many but we are trying our best, and we’re under stress out there too. We are going to need a few weeks of pre-season and hopefully people will see we’re having to go through the same level of stress to get ourselves ready to go again.”
Coronavirus will bring lasting change to rugby league’s landscape – and it has already had a profound effect on the RFL’s refereeing staff; before lockdown Ganson feared he may have contracted the virus, sending the entire governing body’s headquarters into panic.
“We’d been skiing in Lombardy and a few days later my wife wasn’t too well,” he recalls. “My doctor told me to go home from work immediately, and they sent an ambulance crew in hazmat suits for me, my wife and my youngest child on 23 February. I remember it vividly: it was horrendous. Where we’d been, in Lombardy, everyone was going about their business as usual and it was a 36-hour wait before the test came back negative. It was a very nervy couple of days, and because I’d been in work I’d come into contact with a lot of people.”
Even now, Ganson’s personal scare acts as a sobering reminder as to how immaterial sport is at present. But the day will arrive when players take to the field again and referees become, as Kendall admits, the pantomime villains all over again. They, just like the players, will need to be supported.
“People tell me referees don’t care about their work – that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Ganson insists. “They work in the community all the time, and they’re human beings like the rest of us. Hopefully that’s remembered when we get going again.”