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There are four principles that guide the game of rugby.


The principle with the highest priority is protecting the safety of the players. The remaining three principles are taken directly from the Object of the Game. Thus the top four principles of the game of rugby are :

1. Safety 

2. Observing fair play 

3. Playing according to the laws 

4. Sporting spirit 

Since these four principles are fundamental to the game itself, it naturally follows that they become the very basis from which referees officiate throughout the match. The laws define the parameters within which players and referees are expected to operate. The laws provide a platform for the game, but they are not the game itself. It is important that referees do not referee the laws; they must referee the game. 

There are three general areas to consider in evaluating a referees performance.

Continuity, Restarts, and Management.


  • Continuity is a very important aspect of the game and the three components that contribute to Continuity are Tackles, Advantage, and Rucks/Mauls.

  • The Restart components include Kicks, Scrums, and Lineouts.

  • The key components of Management include Control and Communication. 

There are eight components to consider in evaluating a referee's performance.


Each component is called a Unit of Competence. Within each unit of competence, there are key elements that a referee must apply. The content and organization of these units and the key elements within each unit are very similar to those used by the International Rugby Board. The major distinguishing features are discussed below. 

Key elements for various levels of referees. 

The IRB has within each unit several key elements that must be enforced by the referee. The IRB form is intended for use in evaluating international referees. The American form is intended for use in evaluating referees of grades L2 through NP. The American system recognizes the fact that lower-grade referees do not master certain key elements. As such, the key elements to be mastered by each grade of referee are delineated. For example, L1 referees should consistently manage all aspects of lineouts whereas the nuances of managing all aspects of the tackle situation are not mastered until the National Panel level. Thus, for the lower grades of referees, the American system is not as demanding as the IRB system. On the other hand, both systems are equal when dealing with international referees. One aspect of having progressive steps of key elements for increasing levels of referee grades is that within each unit there exists a distinction between lower-grade key elements using the word "observed" and higher-grade key elements using the word "ensured" or "managed." "Observed" connotes the referee saw what happened and reacted accordingly. "Ensured" or "managed" connotes the referee anticipated a problem and acted to prevent its occurrence. 

  1. Onside 

    • The IRB system treats offside of participants (e.g., forwards) in set and loose pieces within the set and loose piece units (scrummage, lineout and ruck/maul). However, the IRB treats offside of nonparticipants (e.g., backs) in set and loose pieces in a separate offside unit. The IRB offside unit also includes offside in general play such as might occur in kick situations. The USA system includes offside for non-participants within the set and loose piece units (scrummage, lineout and ruck/maul). The "Restart Kicks & Open Play" unit in the USA system also includes offside in general play such as might occur in kick situations. 

  2. Foul Play 

    • The IRB system and now the USA system place foul play under key Component of Control. Thus, the American form has Units of Competency for elements of foul play (obstruction, unfair play, repeated infringements, dangerous play, & misconduct) that upholds the top four principles of the game that was mentioned above, delineates key elements to be mastered a different grades, and compiles them under one component. 

  3. Positioning 

    • The IRB system places very little emphasis on positioning with the singular exception of requiring scanning in its Offside unit. In fact, the IRB does not include positioning within the key elements of the appropriate units. Whereas the American system previously included key elements on positioning within the pertinent units of competence, they primarily are now shown as coaching points, rather than key elements. For instance, the referee may not have had problems with immediate release of the ball after tackle situations even though he was too far away to manage the problem if it had occurred. The players simply played according to the spirit of the game and didnt challenge the referee. In this case, the American system is designed to help the referee so that he will be prepared in future games if he is challenged. 

The objective of breaking the referees performance down into units using key elements of competence is to ensure a consistent approach to evaluation. Many elements within each unit have not been identified as key elements of competence. These other elements should not be ignored, but they have low priority. This competence-based system is not meant to generate a comprehensive review of all the units and all of their associated elements of competence. The vital few messages (key elements) must not be lost in the trivia of detail (minor elements). By following the methodology taught in this course, it is expected that the evaluator will be consistent and fair with each referee he watches and that greater consistency among all evaluators will be achieved.

There are two general approaches to observation and evaluation. 

  1. Holistic Approach 

    • The holistic approach understands the whole game and its dynamics, and then focuses on the various pieces of the game. 

  2. Segmented Approach 

    • The segmented approach understands the dynamics of the pieces of the game and then puts them together to understand the whole game. 

Both approaches are valid methods to use when evaluating a referee. In either approach the pieces of the game will come into consideration. Thus the performance of the referee in adhering to the key elements of each unit will be measured in accordance with the competency-based evaluation process.

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