By Nick Harris
29 July 2010
Rugby referees in charge of matches featuring teams from their own country against foreign teams tend to make hugely biased decisions, according to extensive new research by academics at Cambridge University and the University of London.
The bias is present in referees in both codes of the game – rugby union and rugby league – according to the findings, which highlight startling discrepancies in success rates of teams depending on the nationality of the main match official.
In the Super 14 rugby union competition, which features teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the home teams won only 38 per cent of matches when the referee was from the nationality of the opposition, but 91 per cent of matches when the referee was the same nationality as the home team.
In rugby league’s Super League, the French team won only in 38 per cent of matches when the referee was British, but 75 per cent of the time when the referee was Australian or French.
Dr Lionel Page, from Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, and Dr Katie Page, from Heythrop College at the University of London, studied match results and decisions by referees in hundreds of rugby league matches between 2006 and 2009, and studied all 92 matches played in the 2009 Super 14 season for their research. They found that referees “give a significant edge to teams of their own nationality in these competitions.”
Specifically, referees were less likely to penalise the team of their own nationality, and more frequently penalise the team of a different nationality. For instance, in Super League, a British team received significantly fewer cards when it played against a French team than when it played against another British team.
On the contrary, the French team received significantly more cards for offences which were actually classified as more benign afterwards by disciplinary committees using video evidence.
In addition, the study found that the foreign team is more likely to see its try attempt denied by the referee. The timing of decisions also played a major role. Decisions in favour of the team from the referee’s nationality were noted to take place at the most crucial moments in particular when the scoreline was close, while the foreign team received favourable decisions in situations when they were less likely to affect the final outcome of the game.
In addition, the researchers theorised that bias should be higher when the level of scrutiny of the match refereeing was lower. To test this hypothesis, they looked at matches broadcast live on TV where referees faced a close scrutiny from TV commentators using video replay and where numerous try decisions were made by a video referee.
Comparing Super League matches broadcast live on British television and those not broadcast on live television, they indeed found that on comparable matches with an English referee, the French team won only 30 per cent of matches that were not shown on TV, whilst they won 59 per cent of matches when the match was on live on British TV.
Overall the size of these effects is so large that the outcome of the competition is affected.
In the Super 14 the referees biases may on average tend to even out, however the final result of a close competition may well depend on a match won or lost with a referee having the nationality of one of the teams.
In the specific case of the British Super League where one French team is most of the time refereed by British referees, this bias implies that over the 2006-2009 period the French could have won nearly twice as many matches with a neutral refereeing.
These results are of interest for other club competitions which present cross national matches like the Magners League which will welcome Italian teams next season and the NRL which includes a New Zealand team in a mostly Australian competition. The reality of these competitions often prevents refereeing to be neutral given the available pool of referees.
Dr Lionel Page says: “For these cross national competitions where neutral referees are not available, one of the easiest changes to implement could be the ‘challenge call’ like in NFL, NBA or cricket, where a team can challenge a referee decision using video replay. It would provide a natural mechanism of checks and balances to limit potential refereeing biases.”
Beyond the specific issue of cross national matches, this study reveals how much the referee can influence the outcome of a game in rugby. According to Dr Page: “These results should prompt Rugby Federations to work further to limit the amount of referee subjective decisions in matches.
“Rugby is characterised by the necessity for referees to make a large number of subjective decisions in ambiguous decision. This study shows that this subjectivity may play a disproportionate role in the final match result. One of the ways forward could be to use technological innovations for some categories of decisions like offsides and forward passes.”
Dr Page, a French-born economist now resident in England, has offered to share his findings with the Rugby League. “But they were not very keen,” he said.
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