Which superhero adorns the vest he has worn to every professional game he’s referee? Why would both Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn be on his dream dinner party guest list? Who was his rugby hero growing up and what white lie did he tell convince a lippy front-rower to respect his refereeing authority?
Find out all that and so much more in our Q&A below.
Who was your rugby hero growing up?
I was a big Bridgend fan and I was a big Glen Webbe fan in particular. He was a try-scoring legend on the wing when I was a kid growing up watching Bridgend play and he went on to play for Wales, although not enough times in my opinion. Then he turned up on Gladiators and I was over the moon! He was the first player that I could distinguish – he would run in the tries with his gloves on and he was certainly different to the normal player you would see week-in and week-out in the league. I was a season-ticket holder, so every other Saturday at 3.30pm I was down there. You’d find yourself in the clubhouse, sitting in the same seat, talking to the same people, having a Cornish pasty at half-time.
When did you want to become a referee?
I broke my back playing rugby when I was 20 and ended up in hospital for just shy of a month. The doctors said I could play again but I didn’t really fancy it. My Dad was a committee member of the local rugby club, he suggested I referee and I couldn’t think of anything worse! A guy who I used to play with had begun to referee and he tried to convince me as well. They kept on at me and before I knew it I had a letter through the post saying I was appointed to a youth game between Llantwit Major Youth v Llandaff Youth. I thought ‘I’ll do this one game just to keep them quiet’. The game was supposed to be 35 minutes each way but I ended up playing 55 minutes in the first half because I enjoyed it so much! The rest is history really.
Tell us about your first game as a referee?
I was a bit apprehensive but because I’d played all my life I thought I knew the laws. I didn’t have a clue… I was wearing an old rugby kit, I had a cheap whistle that I’d picked up from one of the local sports shops, which sounded more like a telephone than an actual whistle! There was an assessor who came to the game and the one piece of advice he gave me was ‘keep the whistle as far away from your lips as possible’. I’ve always tried to referee that way. There was an incident in the game where I should have sent someone off but I didn’t know how to send someone off. It’s easy enough to pull a red card out of your pocket but I didn’t know whether I was right to do it, how to do it and what you do afterwards, so I took the easy option and didn’t! I did a game the following week, learned a few more laws I didn’t know, then managed to work my way through the leagues to where I am today.
What is your favourite memory of refereeing a match?
I remember one game – it was my first season refereeing and I did a local league game in Wales. One of the front-row forwards was giving me a bit of grief and making a few comments that I needed to have played the game. I pulled to one side and said ‘listen now good boy, if you’ve played in the quarter-final of the European Cup then come and tell me I need to learn to play the game.’ He was very quiet until the bar afterwards when he asked me who I had played for in the quarter-final of the European Cup? I said ‘no-one but it kept you quiet for the rest of the game!’ There’s lots of little memories of funny moments as a referee. Recently I was refereeing T Rhys Thomas, the former Wales hooker, and I asked him ‘who’s refereeing this game?’ He came back with ‘it’s certainly not you, is it sir!’.
What do you like to do outside rugby?
I run my own financial advice practice, which is what I do day-to-day and it gives me the freedom and flexibility to referee. I’ve done four Ironman triathlons and I’ve signed up to my fifth for next year. I really enjoy them, even though they’re quite endurance-orientated. One of my best mates is doing Ironman Wales next year and it was a case of him claiming he could beat me and me claiming I could beat him! There’s a bit of pride at stake! That’s the sole reason I’m doing it – to get one over on him. The lead-up to that will take a good six to nine months of hard training. It also helps with rugby because it gives me the incentive to get in very good shape. It’s a massive dedication of time and having done three in consecutive years back in ’06, ’07 and ’08, your body is prepared year to year, so you can get away with a bit less training. Having not done one for seven years, I’m going to have to go back to a bit of graft to get the legs to remember what cycling 112 miles is and then running a marathon straight after!
If you could change one rugby law, what would it be?
I’d bring the tackle area down below the nipple. My rationale behind it is that the dynamic of contact would change – players would be able to offload easier and the game would open up as a result of that.
What is your pre-match routine?
I’m pretty chilled. I’m been in some changing rooms where the referees are very tense but I’m not – I just tend to muck around. I’m relaxed to the point that last year, I remember being in Grenoble for a European game and it was -3 or -4 degrees, I sat on the radiator until about 15 minutes before kick-off and then realised I left my boots back at the hotel! The only set routine or superstition that I have is that I always wear my Ironman vest to any game of rugby! The only reason for that is it has two pockets in the back which can accommodate the microphone and comms to the assistant referee perfectly well! That vest has been with me for every professional game, so I’m hoping it lasts until the very end. It has been good to me.
What do you discuss with your assistant referees ahead of a match?
Being an assistant referee is a very difficult job to do, it’s probably even more difficult than that of the referee because you don’t know necessarily what the referee wants, how he wants it and when he wants it delivered. As a referee, you’re in sole control of everything, so the brief for the assistants is important because you don’t necessarily want every offence that happens. If you penalise every offence that you saw, there would be no game of rugby. So the key message that I try to get across to my assistants is that they have a button and I tell them to keep it in the same hand as the flag. That’s because by the time they’ve moved the flag to their other hand and gone to press the button, the offence may have disappeared and the need to have pressed it may have gone. Holding off for a split-second and being a bit laid back and not rushed in your decision-making is very important as an assistant referee.
What advice would you give to an up-and-coming referee?
Just to enjoy it and do the best you possibly can. Take it one step at a time and don’t try to be the next Wayne Barnes or the next Nigel Owens. Just aim to do the next game and reach the next level. The bank of experience you build up cannot be underestimated. I’m picking stuff out of my brain that I did eight years ago at a lower level that will help me referee now. If you haven’t got that experience, that toolbox you can dig into and use then it’s very difficult. Some young referees try to run before they can walk. It’s the easiest game in the world to referee when the ball is going side to side and tries are being scored but when things are tight, players are getting irate, the pressure is on and the crowd are booing at you – it becomes a very different place. It’s how you deal with that – the bank of experience gets you through.
Where’s the most exotic place refereeing has taken you?
It’s certainly not Krasny Yar! I haven’t been to many glamorous places actually… I’ve been to the Ukraine, that wasn’t very exotic. But rugby has taken me to places I’ve never been before – Ukraine, Georgia, Moscow. But my favourite place to referee is the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. The crowd and the atmosphere is something different. The city and the people make it – Belfast and the atmosphere at Kingspan are second to none.
If money were no object, where in the world would you like to visit?
I’ve just got back from Dubai, which was nice. I’d like to do a Lions Tour in Australia or South Africa and I’d like to do an Ironman triathlon in Hawaii. I don’t think I’m good enough to do the Hawaii Ironman as you need to qualify rather than just enter but that would be great fun. I like holidays but I’m not a big traveller – warm weather and a nice glass of wine keeps me happy!
What do you discuss with fellow referees when you get together?
We just talk about how rubbish we all were on the Saturday – how did we miss that?! In all seriousness, we’ve got chat groups where you can discuss a clip and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room of referees where we all unanimously agree on everything. The laws are very intricate and it’s all about judgement. It’s up to the referee to decipher whether it’s right or wrong. There are lots of grey areas in the lawbook and there’s lots of things which are based on opinions. With dialogue, everyone improves. As referees we do talk about certain clips and say ‘how would you have dealt with this, what are you seeing?’ It’s surprising how often we see the same thing very differently. Sometimes that comes with experience and sometimes that comes with how you want to see the game played. It’s an interesting room sometimes!
If you could invite five people to a dinner party, who would you choose?
Definitely Brendan O’Carroll from Mrs Browns Boys, just for his sheer humour. Then Donald Trump – he’d be entertaining I think – and Cheryl Cole because she’s a looker. We’ll invite Nigel Owens because he doesn’t drink, so he can drive us all home! And then as the fifth person, I would probably invite Jeremy Corbyn because I can’t stand the bloke! It would give me an opportunity to slate him for a night – me and Trumpy could team up on Corbyn.
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