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Carl Mullen signs rugby ball for small boy


The Referee did not exist in Rugby Union until 1875 when the option to have an umpire as sole arbiter was introduced, until then the two captains made all decisions.

Extract from 1874 Laws
Extract of 1875 Laws

At the general meeting of the RFU held on March 25, 1885, “It was proposed by A G Guillemard (Past President) and seconded by G Rowland Hill (Hon Sec) that the law Committee be instructed to consider the duties of Umpires and to draw up Regulations for their guidance…” It is generally thought that this was proposed as a direct result of a major dispute between England and Scotland in the 1884 Calcutta cup.

In 1884 England played Scotland at Blackheath, in the second half, Kindersley of England was awarded a try by Irish umpire A Scriven. This was hotly disputed by Scotland since C.W. Berry (Scotland) had knocked the ball back immediately before Kindersley picked it up and this was illegal in the eyes of the Scots, but not the English. An important point to note was that the advantage law was not introduced until 1896 and so if this was illegal, then play had to stop. It was agreed to continue the game and refer this to the Rugby Union Committee afterwards. However, the SRU and the RFU could not agree and the match the following year was not scheduled as a result.

When the Irish Union met for their AGM in 1885 they recommended that the 4 home unions meet and discus forming a body to settle any such international disputes since in 1885 Wales and Ireland were also in dispute, and refused to play each other, as they did in 1886 as well.

The unions then met in Dublin in 1886 and at that meeting Scotland offered to drop their dispute to the 1884 result if England joined such an international body which composed and equal number of representatives from each union. The international board was then inaugurated in Manchester in 1886 but the RFU were not represented and would not accept the constitutional terms the IB was established under.

When the RFU amended their laws, the other unions did not accept this and referred the decision to the IB. The RFU then offered to allow representatives of the other unions to their committee meetings but this was ignored.

In December 1887 the IB made a statement that IB rules must apply to all international matches and that no games with England would be arranged until they joined the IB. There fore no games were played in 1888 and 1889.

The dispute then went to arbitration and Lord Kingsburgh, the Lord Justice Clerk and Major Marindin, president of the Football Association met in April 1890 and made a judgment which established the International Rugby Football Board. Hence forth all international games were played under the IRFB rules. Due to the size of the English union it was awarded 6 members on the board whereas the other unions got 2 a piece.


At their meeting in September 1885, the Rugby Union Committee agreed to a draft of Regulations for the Guidance of Umpires and Referees. This was the first time, the term ‘referee’ was used in relation to the rugby union. The roles of the referee and umpires were distinct and their appointment was mandatory.

The referee was to be chosen “with the consent of either the representative Secretaries or Captains of the contending Clubs or bodies”. No mention was made of how umpires were chosen. Further provision was made for the umpires to carry sticks and for the referee to be provided with a whistle.


1866 Two umpires must be provided (Rugby School Laws)

1871 “The captains of the respective sides shall be the soles arbiters of all disputes” (RFU Laws)

1875 Umpires may be appointed if desired, otherwise as in 1871 (RFU laws)

1884 Scotland v Wales fixture: one referee but no umpires

1885 Two umpires and a referee required

1889 Two umpires or two touch judges and a referee required (RFU laws)

1893 A referee and two touch judges required.




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