Glen Jackson is something of a rarity, the New Zealander having brought the curtain down on his playing career with English Premiership club Saracens in May 2010 and returned home to immediately start another as a referee.
The former Chiefs and New Zealand Maori fly half admits the response of some former teammates has been “why the hell would you do that”, but he has no regrets about the pathway he has taken and the challenges that lie ahead.
“I just sort of wrote a proposal to New Zealand (Rugby Union) about going back and getting into refereeing,” Jackson explained during the IRB Junior World Championship in South Africa last month where he was on the referee panel.
“I still had a chance to play the year I came back, but it was a chance to probably get out of rugby at the right time and on my terms and try something different. It was a pretty big risk for me and also for New Zealand and so far I have enjoyed it and don’t really miss playing at all.
“It has been a good step off the playing ladder and into refereeing.
“I had worked with David Rose over in England and had done a few games over there, so the first thing was to try and referee in England, but New Zealand were pretty open to having a player in there as a referee.
“It was a chance to get back home and New Zealand have been great in terms of getting me through the learning curve and then into professional refereeing.”
Fantastic learning curve
His learning curve has certainly been steep, taking charge of his first Super Rugby match in 2011, acting as Television Match Official for the Tri Nations clash between New Zealand and Australia that August and then an assistant referee for the Fiji-Tonga match in the build up to RWC 2011.
“The fast track has been fast and you are always learning,” admitted Jackson, who refereed four matches at JWC 2012, including the semi final between hosts South Africa and Argentina at Newlands.
“I guess that is the biggest thing about also being here, the quicker you can learn hopefully the better you can be. That is something I have taken on and understand I’m still only two years into refereeing which is pretty new, but I’m always trying to pick up things from experienced guys.”
Those “experienced guys” not only included IRB Match Official Selection Committee members Lyndon Bray, Tappe Henning, Clayton Thomas, Donal Courtney and IRB Referee Manager Paddy O’Brien at JWC 2012, but also the likes of Alain Rolland, Steve Walsh and Nigel Owens who joined the officials in between their appointments for the South Africa-England Test series.
“It’s great to have those guys around, I think especially for the young guys here who probably wouldn’t have a chance to meet them. It’s been great having them around the team room and just understanding how they work and tick and just asking the odd question.
“I deal with Tappe and Lyndon on a regular basis with SANZAR, but having Donal and Clayton here has been fantastic and learning from those two guys, who a southern hemisphere guy would probably not normally have any touch with.
“The JWC has been a fantastic learning experience for me. Reviewing each other at the end of the game and how you go around doing things is very new for me in terms of the whole team atmosphere.
Tipped for the top
“We are learning a lot I think as young referees and it is a bigger stepping stone hopefully to the World Cup. I think the most important thing is everyone is going to take something home with them that they are going to improve on.”
Jackson certainly caught the Selection Committee’s attention at JWC 2012.
“We’ve been really impressed by Glen,” admitted O’Brien. “If you look at the aspects of refereeing, you look at the fitness side of it, the technical side, the tactical side, the management side and Glen has got them all.
“He has now got to learn the art of refereeing and he’s doing that very quickly. He is a third year referee and most third year referees are refereeing children and Under 18s back in their country.
“Glen is probably the most exciting prospect that has come through IRB refereeing for four or five years, along with John Lacey, an ex-player from Munster, Alain Rolland who we’ve already seen in a Rugby World Cup Final, ex player for Ireland, played scrum half.
“He will be, mark my words, an international referee, it’s just a matter of time, he really excites me.”
The 37-year-old has since been named as an assistant referee for two matches in The Rugby Championship in September and, while he doesn’t want to look too far down the track, admits it would be “fantastic” to be referee at either RWC 2015 or 2019.
Refereeing a great option
For now, though, he is content to keep learning in a sport he loves.
“I love the game; I love everything about it in terms of the people involved and to still be part of it, because obviously at this age playing would be pretty tough now. No-one has really gone for the refereeing role but it has been pretty good so far.
“It is a great fraternity to be part of, refereeing people are people who just love rugby. Players are the same and I wouldn’t even say at the end of their career, I think probably if I had a chance to go and do it earlier I would have.
“The more players that can become referees is only good for the game.
“It is a magic place to watch the game of footy, you are part of a big game that everyone loves and at the end of the day referees make games and we need referees. I think especially for ex-players that have finished or something has happened to them that they can’t play anymore it is a good way to keep in touch with people who make the game.”
A sentiment echoed by O’Brien. “I think it would be great as we are short of recruiting in refereeing. It is not an easy job, they are under a lot more public scrutiny than they used to be five or 10 years ago, so we want ex-players to pick up the whistle rather than go into coaching.
“Anyone that wants to do it, and Glen is a perfect example as are John Lacey and Alain Rolland, there is a career in front of them if they are prepared to make the sacrifices and Glen has proved at JWC 2012 that he has a future as an international referee.”
For more information on becoming a referee, visit www.irbcoaching.com.