Not a weekend goes by where a referee doesn't get up someone's nose for either calling a foul or not calling a foul, depending on who is upset by the decision. On many occasions you hear the same people yell out, "Hey ref! Learn the rules!"
It is evident that the person yelling is in need of some advice, as we don't have rules in this game, we have laws. When it comes to the process of consideration, recognition and any subsequent action, it is a little more involved than just reading "the rules." Were it as easy as the pundit on the hill would have us believe, we would not have the continual controversy that we have week after week after week.
Referees are prepared and briefed to consider the following:
SPEED: A referee must not only to be aware of the speed of the game but also the speed of the players at the time of contact. For example, the tackler can sometimes be static while the attacker is coming in at high speed when the tackle is made, thus making the tackle look worse than it really is. This can cause a referee to take more severe action than perhaps is necessary or fair. There are instances where the attacker is simply too good for the defender and his speed of movement can be the cause of the tackle going wrong. Referees are encouraged to be vigilant and sympathetic in these instances whereas supporters of the tackled player will always see it more seriously and in a lot of cases demand at least caution.
INTENT: Despite the word being now deleted from the text in Law 12, the intention of the player making the tackle is still a vital consideration for referees when assessing the severity of a tackle and any subsequent sanction possibilities.
AGGRESSION: A referee must assess whether the aggression of the tackler is controlled or otherwise. Is the player making the tackle aiming his aggression at the ball or at the opposition player (similar to intent)?
CARELESS, RECKLESS OR USING EXCESSIVE FORCE: A referee must consider these three areas, as was outlined earlier.
POSITION OF THE TACKLER: We need to observe, as well, not only the angle from which the tackler approaches the tackle and the opposition player, but also the position on the field of play in which the tackle occurs. Is it in the critical third, or in the middle of the field? This will have a direct bearing on what sanction we may or may not consider.
OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY THE BALL: A referee will need to assess whether the tackler had a real opportunity to play the ball when making the tackle. He will have to differentiate whether it is careless, reckless or otherwise.
ATMOSPHERE OF THE MATCH: This applies not only to how large the crowd may be and any noise factor, but also with respect to the spirit with which this particular game is being played.
CONTACT: Finally, a referee must decide whether there is any contact with the ball before there is contact with the player, or at times, whether there is any contact at all. If a referee feels that the contact with the ball is first, and that the subsequent contact with the player is consequential, there will be no foul awarded. He must be satisfied that the contact is consequential rather than dangerous. This part of the process alone will vary greatly at times depending on where a person is situated when the incident is seen. What can look like contact, and a foul, from one angle can easily be seen as no contact, or consequential contact, from another. A supporter will see some tackles as good tackles, but the referee may see contact with the player first and adjudicate it as a foul. This aspect of our game will never change.
"A lot to think about but all relevant in being able to get it right."
Will referees always get it right? No, this is not possible. There are many instances where one referee will see an incident one way and another referee will see exactly the opposite. The development process of referees concentrates much of the time in this area of the game, because it is the most controversial and causes referees the most grief.
The next time you see a foul and you disagree with the decision, rather than just assuming the referee is an idiot, try to see what he saw. I don't expect that you will suddenly agree with him but you might just have some compassion for his task. At seminars, referees themselves have trouble agreeing on many scenarios, so it is no wonder that we cannot please every supporter, nor should we try. We are not there to please everyone. We are there for the game and the safety of the players!