Following “Referee Appreciation Month” and its reminder of current American achievements, it would be valuable to now give pause and consider how the USA Rugby Referee Department will build for future success.
For those who have followed the Referee Department closely, one could easily see the past five years as producing minor shifts in quality instead of positive gains: a path as cluttered with missed opportunities as dotted with successes. Given the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on referees by clubs – the team’s largest per-game expenditure each year – USA Rugby and its members must demand a plan for doing better.
We asked USA Rugby's Referee Department Director Ed Todd to review this column and offer any comments.
Here are his comments on specific parts of Chris Draper's Op-Ed column:
1: It is true that the Zone concept is partially to address the structural changes, some in effect (College Premier Division), some pending (emerging GU’s). How this evolves is not easy to accurately predict, however, there will certainly be changes, both financial and structural that will impact Territorial Referee Organizations, and affect their ability to develop referees.
2: The Zone proposal was extensively discussed at this year’s R&L AGM, at which representatives of all TRO’s were present
3: At last weekend’s 7s Championships, two-thirds of the assigned referees were in their 20’s, having been identified and developed through out the summer competitions, over the last few years as part of our unique 7s referee program, managed by Patrick McNally. In this year’s CPD of the 36 referees who received national assignments, one third were referees holding local grades who were identified as having high performance potential, and provided opportunities to performance nationally.
4: The Zone plan specifically addresses all the above points. Presently development of referees with potential is the responsibility of local and territorial organizations. Presently the HP Management Group conduct extensive outreach to identify future prospects and work to provide opportunities.
Key programs include an annual Referee with Potential camp, Women Referees Camp, and the 7’s Referee Program discussed above. The Zone concept enhances the link between he LRO and the HP group. The Zone Academy, if implemented would expand the Referee with Potential concept while providing a better process for follow up and continuity.
4.5: According to Ed Todd, the USA Rugby referee budget uses monies from two IRB grants, and the domestic referee meeting accounts for less than 2% of the Referee Department's HP budget - Editor
5: Richard Every, who retired from the National Panel 3 years ago, continues to referee locally, and remains on the Midwest Territorial Panel. He did referee as semi-final (3rd Division) due to a last minute pull out by the assigned referee. He received several compliments for his work.
6: The Zone Plan specifically addresses the concern
7: In addition to [international appointments listed below] and the opportunity to work with national coaches and evaluators, the Zone Managers are tasked to maintain contact and facilitate continual development of these referees.
The Zone Plan will be focusing on developing the highly-dedicated, international-bound referees.
8: . Incorrect. Presently, promotion to the T Panel is based on a complicated, yet rigid process requiring a certain number of reports, above grade, by a specified category of evaluator, within a prescribed time frame. Not only is this process difficult to achieve, but costly to the territories. The Zone system is based on transparency and accountability, in which the Zones select the referees based on the needs of the customers (RSL, CPD, NCS, WPL) and the merits of the referee. Flexibility is built in to allow the best selections to be made, seeking a balance of experience and potential.
Ed Todd's List of Recent International Appointments of American referees:
2009 CANADA v RUSSIA iRB Test, CANADA
2010 iRB CHURCHILL CUP, USA
2010 iRB AMERICAS RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIPS, ARGENTINA
2011 5-WEEK REFEREE TOUR, SOUTH AFRICA
2011 iRB WOMEN’S PANEL
2010 iRB WOMEN’S WORLD CUP (REFEREE 3RD/4TH PLACE MATCH), ENGLAND
2009 iRB WOMEN’S SEVENS WORLD CUP REFEREE, DUBAI
2011 iRB JUNIOR WORLD TROPHY, GEORGIA
2011 iRB TALENT OPTIMIZATION PROGRAMME, SOUTH AFRICA
2010 iRB NATIONS CUP, ROMANIA
2010 iRB TEST MATCH: NAMIBIA v ROMANIA, ROMANIA
2011 TEST MATCH: MEXICO v CAYMAN ISLANDS, MEXICO
2011 TEST MATCH: MEXICO v BERMUDA, MEXICO
2010 iRB TALENT IDENTIFICATION PROGRAM, SOUTH AFRICA
2011 PAN AM GAMES – iRB APPOINTMENT
ADDITIONAL HIGH PROFILE APPOINTMENTS:
U20 WOMEN’S NATION CUP, USA
NEW ZEALAND UNIVERSITIES v USA ALL AMERICANS, USA
MEXICO NATIONAL CUP FINAL, MEXICO
TOKYO SEVENS, JAPAN
At the root of this developmental malaise is a reliance on easy gimmicks when hard decisions are required. From a “High Performance” program that has used iRB Grant money - intended for the development of young, international-caliber referees – for a meeting of 40 domestic referees, to a national “developmental realignment” that did nothing more than change ‘B-Panel’ referees into ‘T-Panel’ referees, the latest proposal by Referee Department Director Ed Todd is nothing shy of disappointing. True to form, the newly released “Zone Plan Proposal” is either disingenuous or misguided.
See the Entire Zone Proposal Here
In short, the Zone Plan calls on unnamed ‘venture partners’ to assist in adding more hierarchy and sparsely defined programs to a fundamentally unchanged system that will now see our newly minted ‘T-Panel’ referees become ‘Z-Panel’ referees. While the plan claims to be a novel approach for dealing with the new Geographic Unions (GUs), which have yet to be approved by the Congress and are currently seeing strong resistance, its main features are:
(Rebuttal Note #1)
- Create a paid – yet currently unfunded – position of ‘Zone Manager’ that mirrors the current Territorial Development Manager;
- Support the Local Referee Organizations in a manner that is already being done by functional Territories;
(Rebuttal Note #2)
- Create a ‘Zone Academy’ that is little more than consultative support already offered to the types of referees that would be included, and
- Continue a development and selection system that remains a dysfunctional, leaderless affair where arbitrary bottlenecks clog pathways for young prospects.
(Rebuttal Note #3)
The plan does nothing to address the current disconnects in managing referees for the XVs and 7s seasons, does nothing to address the effectiveness of identifying and coaching high potential prospects, and does nothing to close the gap between our referees and their international counterparts. What is more, it does not provide any solutions for our most recent and egregious failures, including:
(Rebuttal Note #4)
- The entire iRB High Performance budget is spent each year on a single meeting for domestic referees. These are not High Performance referees as per the iRB’s intent, meaning these moneys are effectively being misappropriated by the Referee Department.
(Rebuttal Note #4.5)
- The iRB is not appointing American referees to any of the high profile events like USA Sevens where access was once routine. While appointments to “international or foreign events” are cited in the Zone Plan, most of these were made and paid for by USA Rugby: equivalent to a Club team going on tour, paid for by the Referee Department with membership money.
- National Panel Manager Richard Every recently appointing himself to a National Championship Semi-Final. As a reference, this would be the same as if Nigel Melville appointing himself to be the Eagles starting scrumhalf. If Every was not the best referee for the job, any other manager would be fired for such an inappropriate conflict. If Every was the best referee for the job, USA Rugby should be asking why the Referee Department is unable to develop suitable referees. Neither of these reasons is appropriate and either debases our international standing.
(Rebuttal Note #5)
Many of these issues have been due to lapses in leadership, yet the quality of the leadership in the USA Rugby Referee Department will likely not improve without a change in the Department’s management. Everyone wants to be part of a great team, and that requires a leader willing to provide a vision of greatness. It is not acceptable to be focused on ‘not failing’ – this mindset allows people to tear each other down and fight to stay at the same level. Leadership must be installed in the Referee Department so that all stakeholders want all referees to achieve more.
More than this, though, there are systemic changes that a constructive leader in the Referee Department could implement that would improve our chances of finding and developing talented referees. In many ways the Zone Plan Proposal acknowledges these deficiencies while sidestepping any solutions. Our LROs are currently reactive to young referees, we do not get referee prospects appropriate training in time, and they are left fending for themselves until they are past their prime for international development. None of these issues are addressed in the Zone Plan Proposal.
(Rebuttal Note #6)
However, we could address these problems by starting with the following:
- Control a High Performance conduit. The average American referees officiates 15 games per year; the average number of games a referee officiates annually in a Tier 1 nation can easily reach 75. Further, while Cal v BYU saw over 10,000 rabid fans this year, there are very few matches in the United States that provide the mix of pressures (i.e. intensity of play, fan influence, etc) that will prepare a referee for international competition. At the same time, our pool of identified referees with international potential (i.e. effective, athletic, and under 25 years old) is currently non-existent. As with players, a High Performance athlete has different needs than a Club participant and only the USA Rugby Referee Department can create a structured pathway of domestic and international opportunities that will lead towards iRB selection. By focusing on cross-over players while still offering access to “late blooming” Club referees, the High Performance Program must de-clutter the current Territorial/Zone system of open auditions for the half committed, and instead focus its support and planning on the few dedicated athletes with the potential to make an iRB Panel.
(Rebuttal Note #7)
- Enable community connectivity. Community/Conference referees must be better developed for a level that suits their capabilities by refocusing Territorial/Zone responsibilities on the Leagues they serve. The Zone system does not address the current developmental bottlenecks that see many Territories pushing seniority before potential (e.g. “It would be great to see Jimmy get to T-Panel after all these years…”), leaving too many over-the-hill referees in positions that prevent young referees from getting better.
(Rebuttal Note #8)
These Territorial bottlenecks currently exist – and there is no indication that would change under the Zone Plan – because the Territory/Zone is the gateway to higher games. If the High Performance Program is responsible for the high potential/high risk athletes (i.e. those young guys and girls who could flame out as easily as they pan out), there would no longer be a need for the Territories to seek attention for their favorite referees. With the High Performance Program focused on building referees, the Territories/Zones can finally focus on the work of preparing and supporting domestic rugby in partnership with the rapidly expanding Leagues. Once these bottlenecks are removed – and we start to see the crushing need that is developing from the SBROs to the CPD for referees that can support high speed/intensity games all across our Nation – the right referees will more often find themselves appointed to the right level of game.
- Create annual plans regardless of Code. American referees will earn international opportunities through 7s. A referee may have physical attributes that make him or her more appropriate for a particular style of game, but a good referee is a good referee regardless of which Code they are officiating. Therefore, the current ‘Code-Silos’ that are causing cliques of favorites to form must be eliminated, and all High Performance referees must be tracked on annualized cycles that offer equal access to all opportunities.
These three suggestions may not be perfect and they will require strong leadership to implement. But instead of putting us into some Hitchcock style Twilight Zone where renaming a broken part refurbishes it, these suggestions do attack the root problems facing our refereeing community.
Since we’ve now tried everything from ‘A-Panel’ to ‘Z-Panel,’ our referees not only deserve something better – it would be a worthy show of appreciation.
This Op-Ed Opinion is authored by Chris Draper, a former USA international referee.