By Ian Gilbert
The path to the top for an international referee mirrors that of professional players, with hopefuls working their way up with expert coaching and guidance.
One whistler prospering from his hard work is New Zealand’s Chris Pollock, for whom a stellar few months have just seen him appointed to the International Rugby Board’s elite referees panel for the June internationals.
Pollock earned his spurs at events such as the IRB Junior World Championship in 2008 and 2009 – experience that he says is invaluable for stepping up to the top level.
“Age group rugby for us as referees is really helpful because you obviously referee in your domestic competition, but when you get to go to age group tournaments and you’re refereeing national teams – even though they’re only Under 20s there’s still a hell of a lot riding on those games for those guys and you actually feel what that intensity for them is like.
“Having refereed a couple of other Tests they are quite similar in the preparation that you’ve got to do ... they (Junior World Championships) are a very, very good stepping stone for us.”
For Pollock, the path eventually led to his appointment to the assistant referee panel for Rugby World Cup 2011, and the chance to be involved in the showpiece tournament on home soil.
Referee by accident
“I thought the crowds were fantastic – probably a bit biased but yes, it was brilliant,” he admitted. “Fair to say that 80 minutes (of the final) was the longest 80 minutes of my life but it was fantastic – 24 years we’ve been waiting for that and to finally do it was pretty special.”
But it was on the other side of the world that Pollock achieved his next milestone when he was selected to take charge of the Ireland v Scotland match earlier this month – his first Six Nations appointment.
That fixture reacquainted him with Romain Poite, having built up a rapport with the French referee during their time together on the referee panel at JWC 2008 in Wales. “By having spent some time with him the relationship is good, as opposed to just turning up on the day and not having spent much time with that individual.”
Pollock’s entry into refereeing came almost by accident, having taken up officiating when an injury temporarily ruled him out of playing.
“I had every intention of going back playing – I got injured early in one season and by halfway through, when I knew I couldn’t get back to play that season, someone said, ‘Why don’t you try and referee?’ so I gave it a little bit of a go and by the end of that season I was really enjoying it,” he explained.
“I didn’t think I was good enough to make it as a professional rugby player and it was just starting to come into the professional era, so guys were making a career out of refereeing and I thought, give it a go, see what happens.”
As a former teacher, Pollock undoubtedly had a head start with the communication skills needed to referee, but says the Junior World Championship environment also helped.
“Where I think it’s really important is when you go back into your domestic competition – that’s when you start to interact a lot,” he explained. “So all the guys within the New Zealand Under 20 team I spent quite a bit of time with, and when we ended up refereeing ITM Cup I was coming across them all the time, so you already had a really good rapport with them and they knew you and you knew them and it made life a lot easier.”
Several other top-level officials have followed the JWC pathway, including France's Jérôme Garcès and Jaco Peyper of South Africa who join Pollock on the elite panel for the June internationals, and the 39-year-old New Zealander applauds the tournament’s role in defining and refining refereeing talent.
“I think the IRB do it very, very well in the sense they use those tournaments to see what guys are like off the field as well because that all contributes to your ability to be successful when you step onto the top international stage. So with us being ‘in house’ for three or four weeks it gives the selectors a really good chance to get to know us a bit better.”
Apart from showing whether they have the wherewithal for higher honours, those referees appointed for the Junior World Championship in South Africa this June will receive top-class advice.
“You’ve got to be prepared to listen and learn,” admitted Pollock. “There’s the best selectors and coaches in the world at those tournaments and they’re there to help you become a better referee so you’ve really got to go there with an open mind and be prepared to learn and take some knocks.
“I went in 2008 and didn’t have a great tournament and got some really good advice and hopefully went away and worked on some of the things that they gave me as challenges and that made me a better referee by doing it.”
Pollock, who began refereeing in 1997, is under no illusions about the dedication required to remain at the top.
“It’s a very competitive industry we’re in and rightly so. When you look at what’s on the line for players, coaches and public, referees need to be held accountable and if we don’t referee well then there should be consequences, so you’ve got stay on top of your game.”
His compatriots will once again be the team to beat in South Africa, having not lost a single match on the JWC stage in winning the four previous editions. “It’s a hell of a record, all right. We’re very fortunate in New Zealand – we’ve got some great coaching structures in place and some great talent identification in place.”
As for his own ambitions, top of the list is to referee at Rugby World Cup 2015. “I love my job – I think I’m very lucky and very fortunate in what I do,” he says. “Every day you get out of bed and think, ‘I’m doing something I love and getting paid for it’, so I want to keep striving.”