New Zealand Rugby has applauded Ngati Porou East Coast's decision to cancel this weekend's round of their club competition due to abuse towards referees, saying the decision will hopefully force those involved to think about their actions.
The union's chief executive Cushla Tangaere-Manuel confirmed to Radio Ngati Porou earlier this week that there had been reports of abuse and threats of physical violence toward match officials during last weekend's round of games. She said the board felt it necessary to take the week to let the clubs go and address the situations with their players and fans in the hope it doesn't happen again.
It served as a reminder that extreme situations do still play out at the grassroots level, although New Zealand Rugby general manager of community rugby Steve Lancaster said reports of serious referee abuse in community rugby had declined in recent seasons.
"Thankfully reports of serious referee abuse have been few and far between in community rugby in recent seasons, but one case is too many," Lancaster said.
"Reports of abuse and physical threats toward referees is unacceptable in any sport and our match officials have our full backing as valued volunteers in our rugby community.
"We support any provincial union taking action against perpetrators of abuse against match officials and hope those responsible will reflect on their behaviours and make the necessary changes ... Hopefully it puts the power in the hands of the people involved in the game to take ownership of addressing side-line behaviour.
New Zealand Rugby has long been working to stamp out unruly sideline behaviour, launching their 'Applaud' campaign in 2013 which encouraged people to 'keep it sweet on the sidelines' and has been adapted by provincial unions in their respective communities.
The extent to which referees are abused has been brought more into the light in recent years across a number of codes. Last year, a Manawatū footballer received a one-year ban for verbal and physical threatening behaviour towards a match official. In 2019, a Dunedin basketball referee raised concerns over how officials were treated by coaches and players and the flow on effect it had on the game and the number of people wanting to take up refereeing.
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Lancaster said people needed to remember just how important referees are to the local game, and noted that, like players, officials will not be perfect every single time they take the field.
"Referees are an important part of community rugby and without them our participants at every level would not be able to enjoy the game every Saturday across the country."
"We encourage supporters to enjoy the rugby, support the referees, and realise our match officials are volunteers who do it for enjoyment and, like the players, will not be perfect."