Sri Lankan rugby referees may not be considered world class. This honour goes to Nizam Jamaldeen and Dilroy Fernando, who officiated at the inaugural Rugby World Cup Sevens held in Dubai in 2009. However, the present crop of young referees are equal to the task performed by experienced foreign officials invited to blow key matches [...]


Rugby referees swimming against tidal wave of critics


Nizam Jamaldeen

Sri Lankan rugby referees may not be considered world class. This honour goes to Nizam Jamaldeen and Dilroy Fernando, who officiated at the inaugural Rugby World Cup Sevens held in Dubai in 2009. However, the present crop of young referees are equal to the task performed by experienced foreign officials invited to blow key matches this season.

A past president of the Sri Lanka Society of Rugby Football Referees (SLSRFR) says it is unfair to bring foreign referees to officiate ostensibly to ease pressure on local referees, denying the opportunity to talented young officials to blow the whistle in tough encounters.

“We are not against foreign referees but it is unfair by the local referees. What we say is bringing referees as exchange programme is okay. What if Sri Lanka referees say ‘we can’t referee’ when they are not given opportunities,” said Nizam Jamaldeen who revealed in an interview with the Sunday Times that most of the referees wanted to skip the club season because of undue pressure.

“We spoke to them and convinced them and said hold on.”

Jamaldeen denied the notion that foreign referees were invited to blow because the standard of local officials was not up to standard.

“It is not because of bad refereeing. What union (Sri Lanka Rugby) says is they are here to ease the pressure given by the clubs. Foreign referees have not been brought only this year. They have been here even during the time of former referees society presidents Dilroy Fernando, Vimal Perera and Tony Amit,” he said.

“Unlike those days, now the ARFU (Asia Rugby) monitors our referees. They have some website, videos online and they watch the referees. From there only they select whereas earlier we have to recommend and they select. Now it has changed. We can’t say put A or B in the Asian panel,” said Jamaldeen who introduced radical changes during his tenure as president of the referees society before handing over the reins to Tony Amit.

“Recognition of referees was key. They were not appreciated. Most of them are doing an honorary job. Sometimes they get out of pocket expenses. Most are employed. They have to take leave. They are doing it for the love of the game,” he said.

“We introduced fitness criteria, gave them international exposure and got invitations from various countries for them to blow in tournaments overseas. The game is so fast, even Asia Rugby and World Rugby insisted all referees should have fitness criteria. They have a specific limit. We also stuck to certain criteria just to remind our referees that fitness is also an important aspect. Once it is there (criteria) they will try to train,” he said when asked about the changes he brought about.

“Refereeing is not a joke, fitness is very important. Referees have to be very fit. He has to be the first person at the breakdown. If they are fit only, they can see lot of things,” said the former Sri Lanka fly half who took up the whistle while he was still playing.

“We have improved a lot. We have eight or nine top referees. These boys are all young and under 25 and they will tend to make mistakes. These guys have been selected by ARFU because they have some potential. ARFU knows they have. Our referees go and blow in finals of their tournaments,” said Jamaldeen, whose proud boast is that the majority of Sri Lanka’s leading referees are 25 years and under.

“Now referees are also contributing to flow the game. They prevent if someone comes outside. They talk to the player without penalising. If you penalise, the game won’t flow, it stops. For the game to flow they prevent. Once somebody goes offside, they say get back. Even in a tackle situation, the tackler must roll away. Those days they just held onto the player but ball is not coming out, so the game won’t flow. Ball carrier must pass or move away,” he explained.

Jamaldeen was unfazed by criticism of local referees by all and sundry.

“People will criticise because some doesn’t know the law. Some want their club to win, so when they lose they criticise. Some people only see mistakes of Sri Lankan referees and not foreign officials because of their skin colour. This is typical Sri Lankan mentality. Even when a foreigner blows only one team can win, unless there is a draw. I won’t say referees don’t make mistakes.It happens not only in Sri Lanka but by referees the world over,” he pointed out.

“Refereeing in the past and nowadays is totally different. Game has changed, knowledge of laws by people have changed, more technology is used, rugby is fast. Laws are also changing every year. Some of the old referees even they are not updated. Luckily we have people like Anil Jayasinghe and Irshard Cader who are thorough on the laws of the game,” he said.

Refereeing does not seem to be an attractive profession with many not willing to take up the whistle.

“We have told all schools and clubs to send some boys to join the referees society because refereeing is also important. Schools are not responding because they know it is a difficult task. Anyone can sit outside, see videos, slow motion replays and criticise. But the referee, he should make the decision at that moment, within seconds. He can’t wait for slow motion whereas people can see videos from various angles.Some people doesn’t know the laws properly,” said Jamaldeen who served two stints as head of the SLRFRS, the first in 2011 and 2012 and from 2016.

Asked whether Sri Lanka had good educators for referees, he said: “People who are educators are also outdated. They can’t explain. However, much you are educated, if you can’t explain, it’s pointless. He maybe a professor but still if he doesn’t know to send the message across, then it is pointless in my personal view”.

Technology has its advantage but the repercussions of having slow motion replays could have adverse results.

“Usually on TV, the public can also listen to what referees say. Now technology is there where you can have reviewsin slow motion. If it comes to that, then no one will come and referee. No one doesn’t want to come and get jeered. All have a reputation and self esteem. Even the foreign referee (Jonathan Markowitz) admitted it’s unfair to have slow motion reviews. As referees we must make sure we don’t keep repeating mistakes. We as a committee review their performance for which we have a manager as well as qualified CMOs (coach of match officials) who are World Rugby qualified,” he said.

Asked whether people are losing faith in local referees, he replied: “If you invite foreign referees for long,definitely there will be issues. We are giving young guys opportunities. If new boys know there is an opportunity,they will also join the society and referee. When you deprive them unfairly, thenthere is an issue.”

Looking back at his career as a referee, Jamaldeen said he was encouraged to take up the whistle because of Sivendran, who was secretary of the Referees Society at the time.

“He introduced me to refereeing. While I was playing, I refereed some school ‘A’ division games. From that time,they knew I had something as a referee. I performed in Sri Lanka and refereed major local tournamentsand also in the Asian region. Myself and Dilroy were selected to blow at the highest level,” he recalled.

“Hopefully I think these young guys will some day emulate us. Aaqil has gone for Asian Games. Hasitha Weranga is also fighting on. Dinesh Dilum has potential. There are up and coming referees such as Gihan Yatawara, Isuru Perera, Romario de Silva and Raveen Alexander. We have expanded. These are young guys. The game is fast so you have to keep up withthat pace. To be fit you have to train. What I believe is most of the referees are fitter than players,” said Jamaldeen, who have introduced a marking scheme and conduct YoYo fitness tests regularly to keep a tab on referees.

Jamaldeen has also gained international recognition being appointed as one of the deputy chairman in the referees committee of Asia Rugby.

“It’s a big honour. I will try to give exposure to our referees and CMOs who have been deprived of opportunities due to various reasons. We have talented CMOs and referees. They have to be given opportunities at the right time, not after. When they are at peak, they should be given. Then only everyone will achieve their aims,” he said.

Taking a swipe at armchair critics and even officials who point fingers at referees, he said: “Our young referees at the moment they might make mistakes. They may be still learning to swim, but they are up against tidal waves of critics. Despite these challenges, I am confident in time to come they will become top referees in Asia if not in the world. No one is coming and helping them. They only know to attack because of pure jealousy. Even referees are critical of some of these referee coaches who talk big and even doesn’t want them to be involved in training them. That’s why we are not inviting them. They are not updated (about laws) apart from Cader and Jayasinghe.”

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