Holbeck: The reason referees are always wrong!

Super Rugby
by James Holbeck

Marching across the field, I prepared my verbal spray for the obviously incompetent and biased referee.

The opposition coach suddenly sidled up next to me and now walking in the same direction, we exchanged pleasantries. Snarling with his infuriation at the referee’s completely unfair interpretations of the law.

We now trod together to conquer the soon to be vanquished official! My logic at the time simply concluded that if we were both right on this charge of bias, then the referee deserves both barrels. Most people will see that this logic is in fact, illogical.

This happened so many times that I finally started to question whether my reality was true. I realized something that should be obvious to the reader. If we both think the referee is biased, then the laws of logic would conclude that one of us must be wrong.

An even more challenging proposition followed. If one of us is wrong, then it is also entirely conceivable that both of us could be wrong. This is the golden rule in why referees are always wrong. Our view of reality depends on perspective.

After watching the recent spate of penalties from kick challenges it is obvious that our opinion will depend on perspective. The Bernard Foley incident demonstrated that when two players are competing for the ball with equal vigor, it is the player that leaves the ground that will be protected by the referees.


In trying to calculate my own perspective of the appropriate ruling, my mind was immediately drawn back to the World Cup semi-final late last year.

Many Australian supporters hoped New Zealand legend, Richie McCaw, would face the ultimate penance. Being suspended for the World Cup Final could pay for all of his perceived infringements over the years. There was a suggestion that Richie had deliberately elbowed Springbok player, Francois Lowe, in the semi final.

As I watched the clip I completely missed the incident. So I watched it again and again! Finally, as I focused my attention on Francois Lowe, I noticed it. For a moment in time I was with those calling for harsh consequences. How could Ritchie not have meant to elbow Lowe’s head?

Then I watched the clip taking the role as Ritchie, following the ball in play. Now I missed the point of elbow contact again and furthermore the figure of Lowe was just an irrelevant blurred image.

The point is that sometimes the one-eyed bias refereeing is actually a projection of our own goal-driven perception of the event. Does your perception change whether you look at the clip/vine below as a spectator, then looking to see the possible infringement, and finally as Ritchie?

Now after watching that clip did you happen to notice the gorilla walking in the background? Watch the clip once again.

Ok so I lied about the gorilla. In a famous experiment by psychological research academics, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, they asked participants to count the number of basketball passes between actors wearing white coloured shirts in a video clip. These players in the clip mingled with other actors doing the same thing while wearing black shirts. As seen below.


During the video clip a gorilla walks between the players. Can you believe that around half of the participants did not even see the gorilla!

When we observe life through a goal-directed lens we can totally miss the obvious. Could coaches and supporters be blind to gorillas in their midst during games? Could referees?

Is this a part of our perceptual system that just happens to limit us as judges of reality? What a humbling thought!

We not only perceive the world according to our own perspectives but we also can become blind to seeing the world according to how other people see it or even in wanting to explore reality if it does not suit our agenda.

Referees are human. The humanness of their perceptual system lets them down with its inherent limitations. As does ours.

on the runThis understanding has helped me enjoy rugby more by acknowledging referee ‘differences of opinion’ but not allowing it to make me so angry I become totally blind to the great things that are there to be seen.

Sometimes decisions go in your favor and other times it seems like the world is out to get you and your team. Apparently it is just like life!

My conclusion is that referees will always be wrong through someone’s eyes and therefore, so will we!

The writer would like to thank former New Zealand referee Paddy O’Brien for awarding him the first sin binning in an international rugby game. He recognizes that even though the video replay shows it was an appropriate decision, Paddy was still wrong in doing so because...

Referees are always wrong!

James Holbeck is a former Brumbies and Wallabies centre with an Honours in Psychology. James has since earned a reputation as an insightful mentor & coach at Hope Beckons


The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.

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