Ceremony caps off week that put spotlight on referees

8:36 am on 23 September 2022
Referee Mathieu Raynal.

French ref Mathieu Raynal had a huge influence on the outcome of the Wallabies / All Blacks test eight days ago. Photo: Photosport

Comment - It's been a huge week for New Zealand's other national sport: discussing refereeing. Thanks to the wild ending of Bledisloe 1 and a few other key events during it, Frenchman Mathieu Raynal ensured that the laws of the game and their application got a decent working over by every rugby fan on both sides of the Tasman.

But there's a discussion of a different sort happening today at Eden Park, as New Zealand's long list of international whistle-blowers are being recognised by NZ Rugby for their achievements in test rugby.

The awarding of test caps to referees was a project initiated by veteran ref Keith Lawrence, who made his international debut in 1985 when he controlled a test between the Wallabies and Canada in Sydney.

That game was at the SCG, according to the official list that's been compiled that dates back to 1899 and begins with William Garrard - who controlled a game between Australia and Great Britain at the same ground. Lawrence is number 46 on the list, which so far is 86-strong.

"It's a unique occasion. We decided to do some serious research a few years back, when we submitted a paper to the NZR board ... so we ended up with the list that was an illustration of NZR's commitment to refereeing at the highest level," Lawrence said.

"It's fantastic to be part of something that goes back that far."

Lawrence's son Bryce followed him just over two decades later, becoming test ref number 70 and also the only father/son test rugby refereeing combination in the world.

Referee Bryce Lawrence makes a call during the Australia v Ireland Pool C match of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup. Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand. Saturday 17 September 2011. Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung / photosport.co.nz

Bryce Lawrence controls a match between Australia and Ireland, at the Rugby World Cup in Auckland, on 17 September 2011. Photo: Photosport / Anthony Au-Yeung

"The reaction from the older guys, when they found out it was happening, is the bit that's really thrilled me. Seeing how much it means to them is really special," Keith Lawrence says.

The capping ceremony will include the presentation of caps to descendants of referees like Garrad who have long passed away, including the family of remarkable double international Eric Tindall. He not only played test rugby and cricket in the 1930s, but also was an official in both too in the 1950s.

There will be names present that will evoke a range of emotions from provincial fans of the NPC's golden era of the 1990s. Paddy O'Brien and Colin Hawke seemed to be in charge of every major match back then, and both men forged careers as international refs as well.

Paddy O'Brien - New Zealand international rugby union referee during Auckland v North Harbour match, Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand. 31 August 2002.
Auckland won the match, 43-7.
Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport.co.nz

Paddy O'Brien in action in a match between Auckland and North Harbour at Eden Park, on 31 August 2002. Photo: Photosport / Andrew Cornaga

They, like the vast majority of referees like Lawrence Sr, did it for the love of the game. These days, Ben O'Keeffe's career as a ref sees him earn a decent salary plus be sent around the world to control test matches. He's looking forward to seeing what some of the wisdom the older referees have to impart on him.

"The game was totally different back then," O'Keeffe says, alluding to the fighting and other sorts of rough play that would see a flurry of red cards these days but were simply part and parcel of most games in those days.

"I hugely respect what they've done and I'm looking forward to finding out what it was like, maybe learn a bit from them. Everyone in that room started off reffing because they love rugby. Whilst I get to travel four or five times around the world these days, there's guys who would've been taking ships overseas to do their games."

Maggie Cogger-Orr, who will be out on Eden Park controlling Saturday's test match between the Black Ferns and Japan, says: "We're often included in other celebrations, but to do it amongst our peers who can empathise with our situations in a really unique way... Obviously it'll be a really nice chance to get together as a group of women's referees - there's not many of us, so I'm looking forward to seeing them."

There are currently seven women referees on the list, including the latest three who will be capped.

All four referees have their own separate opinions on how they would have handled the end of Bledisloe 1, but it's fair to say Keith Lawrence is the most vociferous in his view.

"I would've played on. I was brought up as a young referee to believe that you didn't do anything in the last five minutes of a critical match that would influence the result, unless it was absolutely vital. That's just about being empathetic with the game…while the referee was technically correct, in my opinion he showed a lack of empathy of the importance of the fixture."

While that call did at least spare the All Blacks another week of inquisition during their up and down season, maybe a bit of old school reffing nous is what the game really needs.

*Unions offer support for those wanting to become a rugby referee.

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