Next time you happen to be taking in a game of Junior Rugby in New South Wales, make sure you very carefully scope out the referee; they may just be a Waratahs superstar!
You see, every available Waratahs player has recently completed the theory component of the Level One refereeing course, an initiative organised by Assistant Coach Cam Blades to help players understand the laws of the game better, begin to see the game from a different perspective, and, ultimately, get out among the junior Rugby community and get some practical experience!
“The course was tailored to our program, with some guys playing NRC and others on different rehab schedules,” Blades told RUPA. “We had 26 players and three staff complete the course, which was fantastic.
“Firstly, we got players to do the Smart Rugby component of it online in their own time and then there were 2 two-hour education sessions. Extra content was added to reflect how the game is officiated at Super Rugby level, because obviously the athletes are all playing at that level and we wanted to get as much education into them as possible.
“Jamie McGregor (ARU’s Referee Education Coordinator) ran the course, we also had professional referees Angus Gardner and Will Houston as presenters, as well as Matt Kellahan from NSW Rugby Referees. It was really interactive which was great, and the players seemed to enjoy it and take a lot out of it.”
Waratahs’ backrower Brad Wilkin agreed, saying that he was surprised at how interesting it was for the players.
“Initially, we probably weren’t too sure about what to expect and whether the delivery of the course was actually going to be really dry,” Wilkin admitted. “Once we got in there and started listening to the refs, we quickly realised it was actually very beneficial for us just to get a different perspective on how the referees see the game, in comparison to how we see it.
“There were a couple of different scenarios around the ruck and different interpretations of certain laws, which as a backrower specifically targeting the breakdown, I did get a lot out of it.
“Also, in terms of talking to the referee; we were shown good and bad examples, and how having a good rapport with the referee could change the game to our advantage. I’m really glad we did it.”
Blades believes that the Waratahs will benefit from exposing their players to the course.
“Daryl (Gibson) and I felt that embarking upon a refereeing course would be the best way for our group to get their heads around the laws of the game in greater detail and, probably more importantly, help them to better understand where the referees are coming from when they’re making decisions in the game. It takes a bit of the conflict out of that relationship between the referee and the player if the player has a greater level of understanding around what the referees are trying to achieve.
“It was great that Will and Angus as current Super Rugby and International referees were able to come in and get involved, and I know our players really appreciated that. It was good to get to know them on a personal level, but at the end of the day we’re all people who love Rugby and there’s a massive benefit of coming together with one common goal in mind.
“It’s the same for the referees; I’m sure they want to have good relationships with the people they’re dealing with, so when things are stressful in the heat of the game they understand how somebody’s going to react and they have the rapport which allows them to manage that situation.”
Now that they’ve completed the theoretical component and the Level 1 exam, the next plan of attack is to get the players out in the community to gain some practical Rugby refereeing experience, most likely at a junior level.
“That’s certainly the aim, but obviously at this time of the year it’s a little bit limited as to what Rugby is being played,” Blades explains. “It certainly isn’t the intention to have massive demands on them around actually refereeing, but we think it’s really important for them to tie the whole course off and actually experience doing a bit of refereeing.
“It’s one thing for them to learn about the mindset of the referee, and what angle the referee sees the game from, but for them to actually experience it and have to make decisions on the run is important. To experience the feeling where you know that you’ll be analysed, and potentially criticised, for every decision that you make; that’s a really good thing for them to experience.
“Certainly right across Australian Rugby, I think there’s a feeling that we could probably get a lot better at working with referees, whether that’s a perception or reality I certainly think our players will benefit from having done this course. They’ll better understand the mindset of referees, the laws of the game and the importance of developing positive working relationships with the referees rather than engaging in a battle with referees.”
So which Waratahs stood out as those who might follow the lead of former Queensland Reds scrumhalf Nic Berry and excel as a referee once they finish up their playing career?
“What I found really interesting was that on instinct, all of our players could show they were across the laws of the game to a high standard,” Blades said. “The proper terminology and language throws players at times, so it was really good from a player’s perspective to understand that part of officiating better.
“In terms of individuals, Angus Ta’avao certainly showed at times that he had some pretty good knowledge; the Kiwis probably do that a bit better through the age groups and as they’re growing up, in terms of drumming that knowledge of the game into the players,” Blades said.
Wilkin agreed when asked to single out a teammate.
“The best in class would definitely have to be Angus; he had all the right answers, and even when we got out on the field and did a few practice scenarios he had it all down pat. He would definitely have a career in refereeing if he wanted to after footy.”