Amongst 30 large and very physical specimens on the field of play, you'll find a man of more modest dimensions. He carries a whistle and an air of authority, ruling with a cool head and iron fist at all times. He is the referee, of course, and when he sees an infringement he blows his whistle. But you will notice that he does more than that, for he also engages in a series of visual signals designed to make clear what he’s just blown his whistle for.
According to World Rugby, the governing body for the sport, the referee has 53 signals in his arsenal. We won’t cover them all here, but we’ve boiled it down to 12 of the most common and essential. So, in no particular order…
With his back to the dead ball line, the referee will signal a try or penalty try by raising his arm vertically, straight above his head, as if very keenly hailing a taxi cab.
2. Free Kick
To signal a free kick, the referee’s shoulders will be parallel with the touchline and his signalling arm is bent square at the elbow, the upper arm pointing upwards and towards the team awarded the free kick. He has the look of a man left hanging for a high-five.
The ref’s shoulders will again be parallel with the touchline but this time his gesturing arm is angled up and pointing towards the side awarded the penalty. It looks like an exaggerated wave to a friend or neighbour (who of course could be both, if you get on well with your neighbour).
4. Forward Pass
To signify that the ball has been passed forwards, the referee uses both hands and arms to replay the ball being passed forwards, only he does so using a special imaginary ball. Nobody mention this looks slightly foolish.
Here, the referee holds his arm straight up above his head, with an open hand, then pushes it forwards a little and back to the starting position, then forwards once more. He holds it there to finish, lowers his arm and awards a scrum or lineout, depending on the specifics.
The universal sign of obstruction is a giant pair of open scissors. To signal this, the referee will position his arms across his chest in a giant ‘X’, like he’s throwing hip hop shapes on the dance floor.
Failure to deliver a straight – and fair – ball into the line out will see the referee stand with his shoulders parallel to the touchline and hold one hand above his head. His arm then moves forwards and back a couple of times, indicating that the ball went in at an unfair angle.
Like a teacher showing a disruptive pupil the door, the referee will stand with his gesturing arm outstretched, positioned waist high and towards the non-offending team. He’ll strike then hold his pose for around five seconds.
To signal backchat from a player, the referee holds his hand in the air and uses it to imitate a mouth opening and closing – a bit like a ventriloquist without his dummy.
On this occasion, the referee holds his arm and outstretched hand in front of his neck, then moves it horizontally forwards in what looks like a disinterested karate chop.
Here, the referee raises a leg and bends it at the knee. He holds that pose for a moment, then moves said leg up and down to signify the illegal act of stamping.
It can get rough out there, and if numbers 10, 11 or any misdemeanours not covered here result in a severe injury, the referee will signal medical assistance by raising both arms above his head. This makes him look a little bit like the rugby posts themselves.
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