Battling the Referee Crisis

Before creating the TRU Master Schedule for the 2019-2020 Season, the TRU and the TRRA convened and engaged in strategy sessions concerning the shortage of referees in the Dallas and Fort Worth area. The growing numbers of teams and players is fantastic for the growth of rugby, but it means more matches each weekend; yet the number of referees did not increase. Compared to the 15-20 active [meaning available more than 2 weekends per month] referees in each the Central (Austin and San Antonio) area and South (Houston) area, Dallas has about 5 active referees.

In order for the TRRA to meet the growing demand for referees in the North, the Master Schedule moved some Club matches to Sunday. These teams were informed that if they sent current players to the L1 Officiating course, and those individuals began refereeing with the TRRA (5 or more games in the season), their teams would be eligible to move those Sunday games back to the coveted Saturday time-slot.

The August 2019 TRU Summit held two separate L1 Officiating courses. 31 individuals attended these courses, but the hardest challenge was still ahead of the TRRA – how to convert these new L1 attendees into independent referees who are comfortable and confident refereeing a match without assistance or supervision.

Participants of the L1 Officiating Courses - TRU Summit August 2019

The TRRA Board worked on a two-part solution: (1) Providing adequate training to new referees and (2) Promoting player/referees or “Dual-Track athletes”.

The first part of this solution was spearheaded by TRRA Chairman Tim O’Gara – Referee Development Camps.

These camps are held across the state, typically following a recent World Rugby Level 1 Officiating Course, as a stepping stone for those brand-new to refereeing to train on the pitch, both with teams and with other officials. At the camps new referees experience picking up the whistle and taking the center along with simulations and trainings on the adjoining pitch. Tim O’Gara recalls the challenge put on him by Kenny Forehand, “We had to change the culture associated with the role of the CMO. We need to design a practice that’s as challenging as any competitive team would expect on [Tuesday/Thursday]. When refs come to a development camp it’s as challenging as any rugby practice they would go to.” The TRRA hosted four Referee Development camps in 2019 – Denton, Abilene, Katy, and Alvin, TX.

The Denton fixture was the kickoff event for these series of camps. Five CMO’s (certified Coaching of Match Officials individuals) along with four experienced referees took to the fields to train 12 new referees, the majority of which were certified in Dallas the weekend before at the TRU Summit. Brad DuLong, a member of Alliance Rugby Club, attended the camps before beginning to accept assignments on his own. “The biggest thing the ref camps helped with was having a course set up with multiple stops and a different penalty calls at each stop. This helped me when running up on a situation game time to make a solid call with knowledge. There were times we had added player/refs yelling at us which helped make us focus on the situation at hand.” Brad has been able to put that practice into play often, as he lives in the North [Dallas/Fort Worth Area] where the referee crisis is largest.

Referee Development Camp - Katy, TX October 2019

From Denton, the next camp was held in Abilene, TX. Located a 2 ½ hour drive from Dallas, Abilene has always been a hard venue for referees to reach. Referee Coach and current D1A Referee Jarrod Ford commented on the large number of young referees who attended these camps, “I’ve never seen a more enthusiastic group of new referees jump in with two feet.” Jarrod was acting as CMO and running AR for both the Abilene and Denton camps.

Heading into the last few weeks before Cup Season started – two camps took place, one in Katy and another in Alvin, TX. The Houston area camp attendees were strongly represented by youth and women referees. Two-time camp attendee, Bay Area Women’s Rugby player and TRU All-Star Anna Torres shared, “It’s good to get feedback from the game immediately, even when just reffing half a game”. Feedback to referees from trained coaches is invaluable in the development process. At these camps, the referees were able to come straight from the field (after a cool-off period), share their questions and concerns, and have feedback available immediately. O’Gara comments, “CMOs gave three points to these new referees [post-match], two things they did well and one thing to improve on – professional rugby players get coached this way – never more than one thing to fix at a time”.

Referee Development Camp - Alvin, TX November 2019

The second part of the referee shortage solution was the promoting of “Dual-Track Athletes”, those who both play and referee during the season.

There has been a long history of Dual-Track Athletes in the Texas Rugby Union. Other Rugby Club Head Coach and President Justin X. Hale has been both refereeing and playing for years. During his years playing 7’s – with Raggamuffins and Austin Huns – he would disappear after a match just to be found on an adjoining pitch with a whistle in hand.

The TRRA knows the value of these Dual-Track Athletes; they are fit, committed to the game, and knowledgeable of the current laws. They just needed a way to make refereeing more accessible to players who may shell out upwards of 400$+ a year just for club dues. Thus, the Dual-Track Scholarship was born.

Photography: Norma Salinas

With commitment to refereeing a certain number of games during the season and making themselves available for in-season matches, as well as attending Referee Development Camps, a current player could seek scholarship to cover their yearly dues to the TRRA (which covers NASO Membership, access to trainings, full kit for first-year referees, and more). At time of publication – nine referees have taken advantage of this opportunity. More referees have been sponsored by their home clubs. Both West Houston Lions and Dallas Reds have promoted and funded referees to the TRRA.

O’Gara wraps up with his thoughts, “We need 100 referees next year to keep up with the growth of the game in this state; not just names, but fully trained referees.”

The TRRA continues to show positive growth and engagement from members. With another L1 Officiating Course on the horizon and two more Referee Development Camps scheduled for 2020; the TRRA looks forward to the new year and the thick of the 2019-2020 Cup Season.

For more information on Referee Development Camps or the Dual-Track Scholarship please contact Tim O’Gara at For more information on becoming a member of the TRRA please visit our “New Referee” tab on this website or email TRRA Admin Kat Roche at

1 thought on “Battling the Referee Crisis”

  1. Great stuff. I remember my first match I refereed in 2002. I went from class room to the pitch in a week. I had played rugby for 20 years but never felt lost on the pitch before but my first time as a ref it was different. It was what I envisioned a person with a bad case of ADHD in a crowded carnival. Fast forward 17 years. I went to the Denton ref training camp as a CMO. Tim and fellow experienced refs did a great job helping the new refs comfortable on the pitch with a whistle. Ref camps should be a standard To help improve, retain and recruit referees.

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