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Of all the potential candidates you might think of to develop a new referee, a yappy scrumhalf probably wouldn’t feature to high on your list. Former Queensland Reds No.9 Nic Berry is making that very transition though, and after making his Buildcorp National Rugby Championship debut on Sunday, can’t help but laugh at the irony of his situation.
“I’m always into ‘Coley’ [ARU National Referees Coach, Andrew Cole] and ‘Youngy’ [Pathway Services Manager - Officiating, Scott Young] about how polite and respectful I was as a no.9, and they just laugh at me. I don’t really have a leg to stand on when I get a chirpy no.9 at the moment,” Berry told www.buildcorpnrc.com.au this week.
“To be honest, [getting into refereeing] wasn’t something I had thought about, and it wasn’t really something that any players of my era had thought about. Damien Mitchell more and Andrew Cole approached me when I first arrived back [in Brisbane, from playing in Europe], and I sort of said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ then, but the seed had been planted.
“’Coley’ came back to me at the end of the year, and we had a couple of coffees, and that resulted in me just giving it a go, and he said, ‘Did you enjoy it?’ and I had to say, ‘Yeah, I did’. It’s just snowballed from there.”
And ‘snowballed’ is a good analogy of just how quick Berry has progressed with whistle in hand. Sunday’s match at Bond University pushed Berry’s total number of games officiated to only somewhere near 20. He started in Brisbane 1st Grade (essentially two rungs down the ladder) earlier this year, and did a couple of games there before progressing to Premier Reserve grade and Premier Grade by the end of the regular season, and taking control of a Premier Reserve Semi-Final late last month.
Even then, Berry still didn’t think the NRC was on the horizon for him, and admitted being named for his debut was a “complete surprise,” particularly coming in the opening round.
“I sort of thought that if I was to have a run in Premier Grade, it would be toward the backend of the season, you know, in one of the scratch matches like first against last, or second-last v last, or something. And that would’ve been a good achievement to get to Premier Grade level. The boys sent me down to the National Sevens and I enjoyed that, and then when I came back, I started doing ‘Prem Reserve’ and Premier Grade,” Berry said.
“I thought that if [refereeing an NRC game] was going to happen, it might happen much the same way, toward the backend of the season, so it came very quickly. I guess I don’t really have the time up my sleeve like a lot of the young fellas they’re working with; I know 31 doesn’t sound old, but a lot of referees I’m up against have had seven to ten years experience.”
Berry admits that he is “absolutely” surprised at just how much he’s enjoying his new involvement in the game. “That mentality of ‘us against them’ is, unfortunately, kind of ingrained into you as players. But everyone [on the field] has something in common, and that is that they love the game, and it’s a way for me to be involved again.
And he’s the first to admit that he’s still learning on the job, with his “casual communication” something he knows he must work on. “I can’t just say, ‘nah, you were offside’,” he says. Player empathy comes easy, but he also knows he needs to get away from an entrenched desire to head for space near the edge of the ruck. The scrum, as for any referee, but especially for a former scrumhalf who just fed and retrieved the ball without worrying about what happened in between, will be a also source of constant learning.
Berry last played for the Reds in 2007, before heading to Paris after signing a deal with French Top 14 club, Racing Metro. He was just starting his fourth season with London Wasps in late 2012 when, after a string of concussions - nine in the 2011/2012 English Premiership season alone - leading neurologist Professor Peter Hamlyn made the decision to retire for him.
“It was a tough one to swallow, because it’s not like [being forced to retire] with a knee or a shoulder, or something like that, where you’re reminded of it every day when you’re limping around,” Berry explained. “Physically, I feel fine; I just can’t play a contact sport anymore.”
He’s been back in Brisbane for around 18 months now, where he and wife Mel live with their two young children, and he teaches at renowned rugby nursery, St. Joseph's College Gregory Terrace.
Berry came through what the ARU has called the ‘Talent Transfer pathway’, whereby recently retired and indeed, still active players are encouraged to transfer their obvious knowledge and feel for the game into refereeing.
It’s a similar path to what leading New Zealand referee and former Chiefs flyhalf, Glen Jackson, went through. Jackson will be one of 12 appointed referees at this year’s Rugby World Cup, little more than five years since his last game as a player, the 2009/2010 English Premiership Final for Saracens.
Young explains that the ‘traditional’ pathway is still very much alive and well - leading Australian referees Angus Gardner and Andrew Lees emerged via this pathway - but it involves young referees being developed from schoolboy and schoolgirl level, and won’t have necessarily played the game. The talent transfer pathway means that potential referees can be fast-tracked, but it’s no also guarantee that every ex-player will go from third grade to a semi-professional level inside a year.
Rather than the young referees learning the game from perspective of becoming a referee via the traditional pathway, the current or recently retired players already know the game but just need a little bit of refereeing ‘polish’ on things like where they should position themselves, techniques, and even around the Laws of the Game. The talent transfer pathway isn’t about ex-players jumping the queue, but it is a new pathway that wasn’t previously there.
The most talented referees out there - coming through either pathway – may be fast-tracked. It does involve a level of risk, but the rewards are obvious and come much sooner. A young referee like Will Houston is a good example; he made his first steps at the next level in the NRC last year, and has already gone onto higher honours.
“We took risks there last year,” Young explains. “Because Will performed better than some of our more experienced referees, and we said, ‘Right, here’s our opportunity’. We gave him the [Melbourne v Perth] Semi-Final, and he was then selected for the Junior World Championship this year, and did the opening NRC game last Thursday night up in Brisbane.”
“He’s a perfect example, as is Angus Gardner, where they’ve come through the traditional pathways and we’ve taken a risk. And the NRC has been instrumental in Will’s development. He’s refereed the recent Junior World Championship Final, and he’ll be part of our ITM Cup exchange in the coming weeks.”
Two of the Australian Women’s Panel members, Sarah Corrigan and Rachel Horton, will also head over to New Zealand on exchange and officiate in the Women’s National Provincial Championship. It’s possible that a leading female referee could be appointed to an NRC game in the near future, which would be historic.
Young concedes that, with no Australian referee controlling a Rugby World Cup game this year - the first time that’s happened since in the inaugural tournament in 1987 – the odd risk has to be taken to increase rugby refereeing development.
The Talent Transfer pathway will accelerate that refereeing development, and there’s a very fair argument to be made that that’s essential for the game in Australia. Just as the NRC is all about developing playing depth, so it is about developing new coaches, and particularly new referees.
And Nic Berry may not be the last former player we see in the NRC this season, so stay tuned!
For all the latest news and views from the 2015 Buildcorp NRC head to the official website www.buildcorpnrc.com.au