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Australia: Unruly coaches, parents scare off referees in key NRL expansion region

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a young boy holding a football ball: Nic Jones is hoping strict new rules encourage referees to return. (Supplied) © Provided by ABC NEWS Nic Jones is hoping strict new rules encourage referees to return. (Supplied)

Eyes may be on Central Queensland as the NRL pushes to expand its competition, but a referee crisis is threatening the game in this rugby league heartland.

Organisers in the region are grappling with a spate of unruly behaviour and abuse by parents, coaches and players directed towards match officials.

School matches were cancelled in Rockhampton last week and rules were introduced to protect referees, many of whom are teenagers.

Rockhampton referees president Aaron Geddes said dwindling numbers of officials had forced him to recruit young referees, however many had walked away from the game.

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Sixteen-year-old Nic Jones says he took up refereeing to remain involved in the sport upon realising that he would not make it as a player.

Jones is one of the many young people vital to the sport but who are not receiving the respect and support they need.

He has a simple message for spectators, coaches and players.

"We're not perfect and we're still learning.

"We're not going out and [making mistakes] on purpose. We do try, and we don't purposely miss things."

Jones jumped in the car and travelled the nearly 700-kilometre round trip from Rockhampton to Mackay on Wednesday to help officiate a schoolboy match.

He earns some pocket money for his work, however the enjoyment of being on the field is what keeps him coming back.

"You're involved in every play of the game, which is something I really enjoyed because when I played, I didn't touch the ball.

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"You're still involved in the game and you're still getting that enjoyment from the game, and I find I get even more enjoyment from refereeing because the game is on you, and I like that."

Dropping like flies

At a senior level, the shortage of referees means many are having to officiate 12 matches a weekend.

"I dropped to 40 active referees fairly quickly and now, week to week, I generally only have about 25 referees available to fill 50 to 55 games each week," Geddes said.

"We recruited 16 referees in early May which were mostly kids, who were all very active in schools and then they dropped like flies.

"Of those 16, I have about four of them left who are regularly available for me."

Taking a stand

Geddes last week withdrew all referees from Rockhampton schoolboy matches, forcing play to be abandoned.

The move came after young referees refused to officiate amid constant abuse from coaches, trainers, players and parents.

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Rules have been introduced in an effort to protect the referees.

Schools are required to have an identifiable person who is responsible for crowd control and reporting any poor behaviour towards the referee.

Each field must have a marked area for all team members to remain in while matches are in progress.

Geddes said he hoped the strict guidelines and support from schools would help encourage young referees to return to the ranks.

Recruitment drive

Geddes encouraged fans and former players to take up refereeing as the region battled with a shortage of officials.

A player before he became a referee aged 14, he was encouraged to take up the role in high school.

"I wasn't a great player and I was never going to go anywhere, so I took up refereeing to earn a bit of cash and it turned out I was good at it.

"I realised that it was something that could take me to higher levels and so I started investing time and effort into it.

"Refereeing took me to places that I would never have reached as a player."

Some extra money

Refereeing is a go-to for young players and fans who want to earn some pocket money.

Local referees are paid between $30 and $150 per match depending on the age group and level and their role in the match.

"A lot of people come in wanting to earn a bit of pocket money," Geddes said.

"Other people come in who are a bit smaller or who weren't the best players but want to be involved in the sport."

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