Warren warns of a lack of refs as abuse rises
GEOFF Warren is a calm and considered voice in the world of rugby.
The 60-year-old is one of the most experienced Television Match Officials in the business with more than 100 top-level matches under his belt, and the Italy-Wales Six Nations clash later this month on the horizon.
If the face is not familiar then you will almost certainly recognise his Bristolian burr as he invariably announces after careful deliberation: "Wayne, you may award the try."
Warren is also a former RFU Panel official who, after packing up playing, began his whistling career on the fields of the Combination and who remains deeply involved with the grassroots of the sport as the director of training and development for the Bristol Society of Referees.
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And, for a man who chooses his words with great care, what he has to say about the challenges facing the men and women in the middle and who run touch should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who cares about the future of rugby.
In short, the number of people who want to referee is declining at a serious rate with far from enough new recruits arriving to counterbalance those who are walking away from the sport because they're fed up with suffering verbal and even physical abuse.
Warren said: "As a society we've always prided ourselves on being able to appoint referees to all league games, but we can't do that now.
"There are more leagues these days, and although most clubs don't run as many teams as they used to, we just don't have the numbers.
"Abuse has been an issue for five or six years. And no matter what we try to do it's still there ... it seems that referees are there to be got at if people don't like the decisions they make.
"The RFU have put a lot of effort into bringing referees and clubs closer together, but we're still not attracting new members and I feel a lot of that is down to the fact that referees are not prepared to be abused when they're doing something that is supposed to be fun.
"If nothing changes then the situation will continue to deteriorate. Even fewer referees will be coming into the game and fewer clubs will be getting officials who know the laws and who are trained to referee in the correct way, safely and with empathy.
"We will be seeing more club referees who, frankly, won't have a clue. It will become a nightmare and I honestly don't feel that it's too far away."
Rugby, of course, is not the only sport facing challenges in this particular area. Football referees routinely need skin akin to the hide of a rhinoceros to go about their job while even cricket umpires in local leagues are experiencing a level of 'lip' that ten years ago would have been unimaginable.
It could be argued that this is, in fact, a societal problem with less respect being shown across the board for authority and officialdom.
Whatever the truth, it's clear that things are far from right at the moment.
Gloucestershire-affiliated rugby clubs, for example, were recently threatened with "significant loss of league points" if players or officials are found guilty of abusing match officials following 24 cases in the 2011-12 season and a string of further incidents in the current campaign.
Warren added: "A couple of our members have been man-handled, and some of the verbal stuff has been disgraceful, really bad language with people right in a referee's face immediately after the game.
"If you did that on the street then you would be arrested."
It's not all doom and gloom, though, as Warren is keen to make clear. The Bristol Society is taking great care to nurture some outstanding young talent who could yet follow in the footsteps of the city's very own Ed Morrison – the only Englishman yet to take charge of a World Cup final – and a string of officials who have made their mark at the highest level.
Warren said: "There are still some damn good clubs, some damn good players and some damn good referees who week in, week out, do a fine job.
"But they've got to that level because they've learned the skill of refereeing. It's something that takes time and experience ... and for most referees it's a leisure activity, it's not a job you get paid for. People have to remember that."