Joy Neville - International Player to WC Final Ref P1
August 25, 2017
Karl Dickson ready to quit playing career at Harlequins to become full-time referee
January 6, 2017
It probably is not a coincidence that three of the highest profile players-turned-referees have been half-backs; Glen Jackson, the former Saracens fly-half, is now an international whistler while Frank Murphy and Nic Berry, ex-Leicester and Wasps No 9s, regularly officiate in the PRO12 and on the Super Rugby circuit respectively.
Karl Dickson, the Harlequins scrum-half, seems set to follow in their footsteps. With his contract up at the end of the season, the 34-year-old will decide in the next couple of weeks whether to seek another playing contract or focus on refereeing full time.
Being a scrum-half, the appeal of telling other players what to do is obvious. “You are an important part of the game as a No 9 and the decisions you make influence the outcome so there are a few similarities there,” Dickson told The Daily Telegraph. “We pretty much referee the game anyway until we are told to shut up.”
Having been persuaded to attend a refereeing course by former team-mate Will Skinner, Dickson has risen rapidly from officiating under-18 fixtures to taking charge of the Richmond v London Irish fixture in the Championship on Christmas Eve. He hopes to referee another Championship match next month having received encouraging feedback from Chris White, the Rugby Football Union’s national referee academy manager, as well as the players on both teams, several of whom are former team-mates.
“Obviously when they first see me they are like 'what are you doing here?’ and give me a bit of banter,” Dickson said. “Maybe that gives me that bit of credibility because I have played the game to a level they have played at. That means I might get away with a couple more 50-50 decisions because of who I am.”
That understanding between referees and players has never been more important in the week that World Rugby’s new clampdown on high tackles has come into effect. The “zero-tolerance” policy towards contact with the head is designed to lower the rate of concussions but even before the laws were introduced there have been a rash of yellow and red cards based on the outcome rather than the intent of a tackle.
Players’ frustration at such decisions has risen sharply. With a foot in both camps, Dickson understands each point of view, but believes there is still room for common sense to prevail. “For the safety of the game, it is probably the best way to go but I think we have got to understand exactly what constitutes a red card and what constitutes a yellow card,” he said. “I think certain aspects you can see if a player has just accidentally mistimed something. You have got to have that empathy with players. There are certain incidents where you have to say to the opposition, 'Listen I thought it was accidental, I don’t think there was intent so it is going to be a yellow rather than a red.’ I don’t think people will have a problem if you put it like that.”
That empathy needs to run both ways. There cannot be many tougher sports to officiate than rugby union with its ever-increasing speed, evolving laws and teams who are coached to play on or over the line of legality. Mistakes are inevitable, as Dickson admits. In a recent A League game he judged a player had knocked on in the act of scoring a try rather than consult a touch judge. “I was too hasty,” he said. “Looking back at it, it was 70 per cent a try. Will I learn from it? A hundred per cent. Luckily it was in an A League game without a big trophy on the line.”
Other officials are not afforded such leeway, whether Craig Joubert at the 2015 World Cup or, more recently, when Mathieu Raynal allowed Connacht to kick to the corner against Wasps when time had already expired. “If we as referees went up to players every time they knocked the ball on or threw a forward pass then they would not appreciate it,” Dickson said. “You just have got to understand that referees see incidents in a split second and a lot can happen in a split second. You are looking all over for offsides, rucks, tackles. Referees will miss the occasional knock on or player coming in from the side of a ruck but they should not be held to a different standard. We all make mistakes.”
Despite such pitfalls, Dickson is relishing his new pathway, even if finding gaps in his schedule can be challenging. That is why he has resolved to decide on his future by the end of the month. “The hardest thing is playing and refereeing,” Dickson said. “It is like with anything, you need to build up that consistency rather than having the odd game here and there.
“The ultimate goal if I do go into refereeing is to be taking charge of international games like Glen Jackson has done.
“If next year I decide to go full time refereeing hopefully by the end of next season I would be involved in the Premiership.”