By Pat Benatmane

Aah, referees – can’t live with them; can’t play sport without them. It’s a tough job, especially nowadays when the video replay can show up every mistake made in the blink of an eye. Programmes no longer show where the ref comes from – google can give you answers in seconds if you want to abuse the ref. No wonder there are not too many people coming forward to referee the amateur games. Why would anyone give up their Saturdays and Sundays to run up and down in the rain and mud, getting shouted at from the side-lines and from both teams? I have seen a ref have a minute in a match to wipe tears away. And how many clubs have decent facilities for refs to get cleaned up afterwards?

You can find old newspaper reports – some involving Hunslet – where the ref had to be escorted off the pitch by police and smuggled out of the ground, to avoid being attacked by angry spectators. However, in the early 1900s, a referee gained the respect of all. The ref was Frank Renton and he was a local Hunslet lad. He retired in April 1927 having started being involved with rugby in the 1880s, and the Sports Post newspaper interviewed him.

Frank played first with Hunslet Nelson rugby union, but soon changed to Hunslet Northern Union. His second match was on Woodhouse Hill ground, behind the Cemetery Tavern, now the Parnaby Tavern.  He was deemed too light as he probably got knocked over too easily or couldn’t push enough in the scrums, so he changed to being a touch judge. I don’t know if they had to undergo a training course then, as you have to now, but he must have been good enough to step up to being a ref, as he went on to referee for nearly 60 years (can’t imagine Ben Thaler doing that!). When Hunslet broke away from Union, Frank continued to referee, being in charge of their first Northern Union game. In his career he took charge at 30 seasons of professional rugby, plus charity matches, school matches, county and international games. I’m not sure how old he was when he retired, but he insisted, ‘I might tell you that I’m still sound in wind, limb, and eyesight, and that I can still handle a game.’

Frank was dedicated, only giving backword to refereeing a match when he injured his shoulder whilst ringing the bell in the Leeds Parish Church tower. According to the Sports Post, ‘All the refereeing honours of the game, naturally, have come his way. So far back as 1899, when Oldham met Hunslet in the final for the cup at Fallowfield, the Watersheddings people asked that Renton should take the match, despite the fact that his own club were their opponents.’ What respect! Maybe Frank’s softly, softly approach won him the respect of the players and fans. ‘Often I would see a player do something that was not right; but I would let the game go on, and then, when I got near enough to the player, I would just drop him a quiet hint that I had seen something I didn’t want to see again. It was enough.’ That’s a bit different from all this ‘Move’ and ‘You’re offside’ which we hear on the Sky matches.

Frank recounted one of the rare times when he had trouble in a match. ‘My watch went wrong (in the Oldham v Huddersfield game) … (it) stopped and started again, and puzzled me just as much as my action in carrying the match on beyond time puzzled the spectators.’ So even that wasn’t really his fault, but the watch’s fault.

Frank ended his interview by being asked for advice for new referees. He gave two pieces which still are good advice today: – ‘The best thing a young referee can do is start firmly, and stand by his start ever afterwards,’ and something we’ve all witnessed, ‘The weak referee makes most of his own troubles.’

Extracts from The Sports Post Sat April 16, 1927

Frank Renton Heritage Number 91. Debut versus Selby on 24 September, 1887. Last match for Hunslet 3 April, 1895