The office boy had taken the afternoon off to attend his uncle's funeral. His boss, a keen football fan, went the same afternoon to watch the big match and saw the boy in the crowd. "So this is your uncle's funeral," he said sarcastically.

"I wouldn't be surprised," said the office boy. "He's the referee."

An internet search using the keywords referee and jokes finds entire websites of black humour centred on the people in the middle.


But being the butt of jokes is the least of the problems that today's referees face.

The lumbering Pieter van Zyl took crowd wrath to new levels by tackling referee David McHugh in Durban during the Springboks-All Blacks match this month.

Last week a volunteer referee at an under-10 rugby league match in Auckland was attacked after a father became incensed at his rulings.

Rugby referees say they still get their share of abuse from players on the field, but penalties and marching teams 10m for further dissent usually sorts that out.

Most of the serious problems come from the sidelines.

An Auckland premier club grade referee tells of one match where threatening spectator comments led to him to having a friend ready in his car with the engine running for a quick getaway.

Former test rugby referee Keith Lawrence says his refereeing son, Bryce, had to order a parent out of the ground for constant abuse at a recent secondary schools match in Tauranga.

Lawrence, the national referee manager for the New Zealand Rugby Union, remembers happier times.

"You used to get good-humoured comments from the sidelines like, 'Come on ref, open the other eye'.

"Now, it's much more personal, much more aggressive. You get comments questioning people's parentage.

"At times there are racist comments made, 'You white honky' ... "

Lawrence says the harsher sideline environment, particularly in lower grades, has seen referees' partners and children stay away "because they don't want to go along and listen to their father or partner getting absolutely abused when he's trying to assist two teams of players to enjoy the game."

Which raises the question, why do they do it?

Lawrence says for him it is simply that rugby has been a passion "forever".

"It's just the most wonderful way to be involved in the game. It's a way of keeping fit physically and mentally, and Paddy O'Brien is absolutely right when he says it's the best seat in the house."

Lawrence made the switch from playing to whistling during his early teaching days in Waikato shortly after getting married. He was moving towns regularly in his new career, had a family on the way and did not want to get injured, and two teaching colleagues were referees.

He started at 23, was in charge of his first representative game at 28 and went on to officiate in 13 tests between 1985 and 1991.

The international dimension - walking on to grounds such as Cardiff Arms Park, Murrayfield and the Parc du France - was a bonus even before professionalism.

Lawrence says the unsung heroes are those in the lower grades who give up hours of their weekend to referee junior and club games.

They are often harangued and taken for granted, testing their love for the game.

The abrasive environment has taken its toll on recruitment.

Lawrence says the union needs between 250 and 300 referees a year to replace those leaving and most provinces have a shortage of officials.

He believes the worsening spectator behaviour has been influenced by relaxed alcohol laws, sports betting and a general anti-authority trend.

At the highest level, spectators also demand more from professional referees.

"People are less forgiving when fulltime referees make mistakes, but it doesn't mean they can take out their aggro and bitterness in a physical sense."

There was also increased media scrutiny, particularly from television commentators, who people assume are right when they criticise referees.

There is an argument that some referees bring this focus on themselves by being too ready with their whistle, too big for their boots.

Lawrence acknowledges that people do not go to matches to see "a guy with a whistle blowing it and waving his arms around".

He says there are two basic referee philosophies - applying the laws rigidly or applying them within the spirit of the game. New Zealand referees tend to follow the latter, leading to a lower average penalty count of 15 to 20 a game compared to 45 in other countries.

One of the New Zealand's four professional referees, Paul Honiss, was told to give up his playing days after being badly concussed in a Waikato secondary schools match.

"Some people might argue there is some brain damage that has occurred," he says, showing his own brand of refereeing black humour.

A secondary school game he played for St John's College against Church College for the Tricolour Trophy was decided by what he describes as a dubious last-minute penalty against his team.

"Something about that stuck with me and I thought I have to have a crack at it [refereeing].

"For me rugby was the only sport I really played seriously and I just wanted to continue that as much as I could."

Honiss whistled his first match at 22 and rose through the ranks to control matches in the first Super 12 competition in 1996.

The demands of a fulltime job as a national sales manager and refereeing meant one had to go, and the following year the New Zealand union gave him a professional contract.

These days the 38-year-old has a full calendar of appointments from Super 12 warm-up matches to end-of-year tours.

The demands of the modern game are frantic.

"You virtually cover a Richie McCaw path, but every now and then he won't be at a ruck and you have to be. And if Jonah Lomu sprints down one touchline you have got to be there for him as well."

Honiss has been criticised as whistle-happy. He insists he is motivated to make the games fair for both teams, and attractive to spectators.

He accepts that referees make mistakes, and as part of the after-match analysis at Super 12 and National Provincial Championship level, he will ring coaches and say, "I got this one wrong".

But he also believes television commentators regularly make ill-informed and inaccurate criticisms which can filter down to club spectators.

"At the end of the day those who stick at it [refereeing] have a passion for the game, and want to do it for the game rather than themselves.

"At times I get the hackles up on people's backs, but I love it and want it to be the best game in the world."

The Auckland Rugby Union referee education officer, John Gillies, says sideline abuse has worsened in the past three or four years.

"I think it's a general society thing. Initially you could take it as being a passion for the game. Now I really have to start questioning that."

Although the Auckland union has no problem recruiting referees, retaining them is more difficult and abuse is a turn-off factor.

He recently spoke to a referee contemplating quitting after being roundly abused at a secondary school game. In the end the referee decided "not to let the buggers beat me" and carried on.