Chris Kendall: The Trials of Top-Level Officiating in Rugby League

Challenge Cup Final Referee Chris Kendall: Facing the Trials of Top-Level Officiating in Rugby League

Chris Kendall is one of the most prominent referees in rugby league, helming the recent emotionally-charged Challenge Cup final between Leeds and Leigh. However, he is also one of the most criticized officials in the sport, often finding himself at the center of controversy.

“There is a popular misconception that referees like to be the showpiece event and make it all about them,” Kendall explains. “I might cop that a little bit more than others. ‘The Chris Kendall Show’. That couldn’t be any further from the truth.”

Kendall’s performance at Headingley was defined by his ability to keep a low profile, as Leeds paid tribute to the inspirational Rob Burrow. This is precisely the approach Kendall strives for whenever he takes the field – to officiate without drawing excessive attention. Yet, referees like Kendall often find themselves cast as pantomime villains by passionate fans.

In a rare and insightful interview, the 32-year-old Kendall opens up about the impact of referee abuse, the challenges of officiating at the top level, and the split-second decisions that shaped the fiery start to the Challenge Cup final.

Navigating a Challenging Start to the Final

Kendall’s plan for the Wembley showpiece was to navigate the opening sets cautiously, but within minutes, he was forced to issue yellow cards to Wigan’s Mike Cooper and Warrington’s Matt Dufty. “A totally unexpected start to the game,” Kendall reflects. The controversial calls risked igniting the match, but Kendall stood firm, knowing that adhering to the strict head contact guidelines was crucial for player safety, even in the face of potential backlash.

“Brain health is just as important in a regular Super League match as it is in a final. If we hadn’t stuck to that framework in the Challenge Cup final then we would have been ignoring the main role of the referee which is to protect the safety of players,” he explains.

Dealing with Abuse and Criticism

While Kendall claims the constant criticism on social media is “water off a duck’s back,” the reality is that the abuse can take a toll, especially on a thoughtful and sensitive individual. Kendall is determined not to let the “keyboard warriors” push him off platforms he enjoys, but the personal attacks, like one aimed at his newborn son, highlight the need for a healthier relationship between referees and the rugby league community.

“We have at times an unhealthy obsession with referees. That’s not just our sport. Anything involving refs seems to get hits. We can’t just say referees are off limits because they are not. But the constant obsession with it just negatively impacts us as referees, recruitment and the game in general,” Kendall says.

Despite the challenges, Kendall and his fellow officials remain committed to their roles, training as hard as the players to ensure they are physically and mentally prepared for the demands of top-level rugby league. Ultimately, Kendall’s goal is to officiate in a way that goes unnoticed, allowing the focus to remain on the players and the spectacle of the game.

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