The purpose of this column is to answer questions. Not the ‘plaguing mankind since the dawn of time’ questions, but those that occasionally raise their hands from wooden bench seats at the edges of my otherwise unoccupied mind.
One such question goes like this: “Why would anyone want to be a referee?”
In general, whatever the sport, public opinion about referees places them firmly with parking wardens. I’ll prove it:
- We’ve had movies about murderers and monsters, but has anyone in the history of cinema ever, ever made a film in which the hero is a referee?
- Jesus recruited a tax collector to be one of his disciples, but even he couldn’t face the idea of a referee in the group.
- Ever heard the term ‘whistle-blower’? It’s not a compliment.
Imagine if, every time you came out with an opinion at work, half of the people around you threw their arms in the air and shouted, “Oh, come on! Open your eyes Shirley!”
Garratt Williamson is a Super 15 rugby referee who has officiated twice at test-match level. He’s one of five professional refs employed by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union and has seen his name in the paper beside some pretty unflattering adjectives. It was to him, then, that I posed this: “Why, Garratt, why would you want to be a referee?”
“It’s a really hard question,” he says. “But for where I’m at now, it’s an amazing environment. You’re surrounded by the best players in the world, you’re in the biggest stadiums in the world, you’ve got 40,000 or 50,000 people watching you. If the game goes well you’re part of an amazing spectacle and that makes you feel good. If it doesn’t go so well you’ve got to roll your sleeves up, and there’s a sense of achievement with that as well.”
Well, when he puts it like that I’m tempted to slip into a pink outfit and lace up some boots too. But it wasn’t always like that, right? Let me rephrase the question, thus: “Why did you get into refereeing in the first place?”
“You get to a point in your life where you think, I go to work every day, do my stuff, but there’s nothing really for me, and sport’s the obvious avenue for Kiwis and so I took up refereeing.”
Garratt is selling himself short here by a long way, in that he left a safe, well-paid job to follow a dream and now that dream is a reality. How many of us would have that courage? And it’s not like it came easy.
“In those days I was massively overweight,” Garratt says. “[Senior contracted referee] Lyndon Bray was in Wellington refereeing the main game and I was doing the curtain-raiser, and I asked him to come and have a look. After the match I said, ‘How’d it go?’ He said, ‘I can talk to you about scrums and line-outs, but you’re not really going to go anywhere ’cause you’re too fat’.”
It’s kind of nice then, that 30 kilos lighter, when Garratt was selected as a contracted Super Rugby referee it was Bray who picked him.
Back to the ‘why’ in all of this. Why put yourself in the firing line? Why risk abuse from the multitudes, why be the butt of so many jokes, why decide to be a referee?
Garratt says it best, I think: “I’m involved in something I could never be involved in any other way.”