Joy Neville - International Player to WC Final Ref P1
August 25, 2017
Top refs open up on the highs and lows of the hardest job in rugby
February 6, 2017
Picture a job where bad days make you shut out the world, and even the good days are lonely. A job where you enjoy the best seat in the house at major sporting arenas but vitriolic abuse is only one mistake away.
Who would be a rugby referee?
Former Kiwi official Chris Pollock took charge of 201 first-class games and 22 internationals, but endured a particularly difficult spell during the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.
In fact, Pollock has a signed Lions jersey but still can't bring himself to put it on the wall.
"I copped a lot of criticism and it was hard for me at the time to take because I'd never experienced it," says Pollock, who felt the wrath of Lions coach Warren Gatland after the first test in Brisbane. "The one thing you learn is the higher up you go the mistakes you make get blown up. The bigger the game, the more that's at stake.
"I didn't appreciate just how big the Lions is. I had another two weeks in that Lions environment where I was copping grief pretty much anywhere I went."
But there's a caveat, Pollock says. "I had a couple of tough times in my career but over 10 years I'll take those to experience what I did."
Other prominent whistleblowers report different challenges.
When Glen Jackson turned down further playing contracts and picked up the whistle aged 34 he didn't know quite what he was in for.
He certainly didn't appreciate he would soon spend 180 days away from home each year - 80 per cent of it by himself, leaving behind his wife and two children aged nine and seven. He coaches his son's rugby team but has only seen him play three or four times.
Jackson, four time New Zealand Rugby referee of the year, controlled 34 games last year - all of which required travel. Some games went well. Some not so much. No-one is perfect, but in this high stakes space errors are magnified, and not everyone deals with pressure or embraces forgiving nature.
The biggest adjustment Jackson, the former Chiefs and Saracens first five-eighth, made was learning not to take criticism, particularly from intimidating coaches, personally.
Unlike his playing days there are no team-mates to pat him on the back for a job well done. While he enjoys most of what refereeing entails, he never feels an obvious sense of satisfaction post match. He averages 7-8km per-game; the 80-minutes leaves him mentally knackered, and he sure hears about it if things don't go immaculately.
"The pressure on coaches took its toll. Half the time I semi knew the coach or had come across them in my playing days," Jackson said.
"Time is the biggest thing to learn you're never going to make anyone happy. You just wear it and move on. You've got to understand they're the ones under the pressure. You're trying to do a job and sometimes you get it wrong. That's life. It could go the other way where they get a bit of luck and you still don't hear from them."
Whatever the circumstances, Jackson attempts to harness a professional demeanour, moving onto the next game, acknowledging what he has done to upset the coach in question.
"If you take it too far to heart you'd be forever pretty down on yourself. That's been the biggest change I've had in the last couple of years.
"You know where to stand and when to move away. Normally the referees' changing room is closer to the away team and traditionally the away team comes up short. If something happens you're always going to hear a little bit of abuse thrown towards you.
"Where do you start? There's not too many great comments you get passed on the way to the changing shed that you'd be allowed to write in the paper."
In this respect Jackson is far from alone. South African Craig Joubert copped more than his share of abuse during a career that spanned 12 years.
Joubert, long considered one of the world's leading referees, is often remembered for his polarising matches.
Scottish supporters will never forgive him for the 2015 World Cup quarterfinal blunder. His decision to penalise Scotland, rather than award a scrum, allowed Bernard Foley to kick the Wallabies into the semis. Joubert knew what was coming, and immediately ran from the pitch to a chorus of boos.
Joubert, who assumed a mentoring role with World Rugby this year, maintains touring many of the world's great cities and stadiums was a privilege.
But he admits scrutiny can be overwhelming.
"Doing what we do, as long as you're in the arena, there's always a chance something will go wrong or perceived to be wrong and there can be some significant fallouts," Joubert said.
"Your character is not defined by when you get knocked down. It is defined by how you stand up.
"I now know looking back after my final season of international refereeing it was great I went straight back into the arena. I hope that defines my career."
In the modern world feedback doesn't just come face-to-face, either.
"That's been a major change over the course of my career. Social media is so powerful now. I'm not naive to how social media works and what goes on but I choose not to engage.
"The people that really care about you are supportive through those moments. They help you through that. Our refereeing fraternity are really important to us."
Pollock compares refereeing to playing in that form fluctuates. The difference is referees don't get to replicate in-game pressures, forcing them to learn harsh lessons in real time.
"I can fully understand why coaches get annoyed because their job is on the line every time they don't win. If they are having a bad season and a referee makes a bad mistake that potentially means they lose their job. But on the other side of the coin you can't get experience without being in the middle, and you're going to make mistakes.
"You often want to turn around and ask the coach 'are you going to drop your 10 for losing the ball or missing that tackle?' No. You're going to try grow them.
"It's the same with referees.
"You've just got to accept that with the way rugby is and the amount of grey in our laws there are going to be mistakes and misinterpretations from people watching."
Sanzaar treats referees much like players. Mistakes, big or small, do not automatically see them dropped. Incidents and indivduals are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Last year around 25 games out of 140 featured changes of referees.
In terms of lifestyle, at the top end referees live comfortably. Super Rugby whistlers are full-time, receiving six-figure salaries and a car. With test match payments factored in pay packets can edge towards $200,000 in some cases; a far cry from the $100 match fees when Super Rugby went professional in 1996.
New Zealand has seven full-time referees, but with provincial match fees ranging from around $200 for Heartland games through to $500 for Mitre 10 Cup, everyone outside that elite bracket juggles another job.
Sanzaar referee's boss Lyndon Bray believes a pay rise is overdue at Super Rugby level.
"There needs to be at some point in the near future some movement around remuneration," Bray said. "Everyone has to recognise we're picking up guys at an older age than players so we're asking referees to resign from their career. You have to keep that in mind when you're replacing their salaries."
Dark days and coaching confrontations aside, most referees emerge out the other side thankful for their thankless task.
"Every kid wants to be an All Black when they grow up if they like rugby," Pollock said. "If you can't be putting on a Super Rugby or All Blacks jersey but you're running around in-front of 40,000 people involved in a sport you love it's pretty amazing."