Becoming A Rugby Referee – written by Karen Fong

Posted by Karen Fong on May 7th, 2012

Originally published in the UCLA WRAA Magazine

SCRRS Rugby Referee Karen Fong - photo by Sportwurlz

I started refereeing a few years ago when I was coaching a youth team in San Diego. There was an email sent out to all youth coaches asking them to be certified since there was such a dramatic increase in youth rugby. I got myself certified with the intent of only refereeing if there was ever the case that we showed up to a match and no ref showed up. I figured at least I could hop in “in case of emergency.” As it turned out, hopping into once match turned into “hey, do you think you could do the next match too?” and before I knew it I was refereeing every Saturday after I coached my own youth team.

It wasn’t long before a couple of veteran referees in the San Diego area noticed I was refereeing more and were very supportive and encouraged me to start refereeing more seriously. I was VERY cautious and on more than one occasion told them that refereeing wouldn’t be for me. I found refereeing 100 times more challenging than playing! I mean, when you play, you never REALLY have to know the laws, there is always someone to tell you what to do (“oh, so when I touch the ball down I do what now? Oh right, a 22 drop. Thanks Ref!”) But, I figured, why not? Even though it WAS hard, there is always that competitive side of me that wants to face a challenge head on and I knew I wanted to contribute and give back to the game of rugby which has given me SO much. So, I decided to step down from my club rugby coaching (I only coach a high school team now in the fall) and focus on refereeing.

I am currently what is called an “L-1″ Referee which stands for Local Area Level 1 (which means I am one of the top refs in my Local area of SoCal) as well as a special designation of being on the “Pac Coast Zone Panel” or Z-Panel” for short. I am allowed to ref to the highest level of LOCAL AREA play, so in every territory of the U.S., I am allowed to ref Men’s or Women’s up to Div 1 Men’s (I had my first Div1 Men’s match last month (with approval from each society).

Without getting into all the weird Ref intricacies which would put you to sleep, basically, with each designation, it allows you to be appointed to a variety of games, but only those which you are qualified for. I had no idea that so much went into vetting out refs, but for example, only certain levels of refs are allowed Collegiate women’s matches versus those allowed to ref a youth match (i.e. L-2 versus L-4). National events, like the one where I had a chance to ref UCLA, you had to be on a special panel in order to ref there. This is the basic path: Local Area–>Territorial/Zone Panel –>National Focus –>National Panel –IRB Panel(Int’l)

While there are definitely some challenges to being a ref (you can’t escape the fact that the job is hard, everyone thinks you are an idiot, you will at times feel like an idiot, you’ll get yelled at, you have to study films and the lawbook like you are back in college), but there are some VERY cool things about being a ref:

  1. It keeps me fit. In the last couple of years, I run more than I ever have. Yes, I don’t have to make tackles or ruck, but I DO have to make EVERY SINGLE breakdown, from a ruck at the 5 meter line to a break that takes me to the opposite try line. Boys, Girls, Mens or Women’s, it doesn’t matter. I have to get there. Because of this, I log more time running than I ever have (please don’t tell Tam or any other coach I have ever had in the past!) This helps keep me motivated to run and stay fit especially when I am no longer playing. I am not one of those people who can go to the gym or run to just “stay fit.” I have to have a reason.
  2. I get to be on a team again! That is really what clinched it for me to “do this seriously.” I played on competitive rugby teams for over 10 years and when I had retired in 2007, it was a hard transition to go from being a part of a team week in and week out. Even with the coaching, you essentially surround yourself with kids – not exactly the same thing as your cohort of rugby pals. At my first adult rugby tournament and there I had a chance to mix and mingle with a larger group of rugby refs. I found that they were an amiable and fun group (though slightly obsessed with the weird intricacies of rugby refereeing that I had yet to understand!) and I instantly felt at ease with my new “team.” I have a great SoCal Ref Society which I would describe as my “Home Team” (much like my college team would have been UC Davis and my club team would have been UCLAWRFC). The cool addition to this is as I move up the ranks into National Referee Assignments, I also get to be a part of an Elite Team (something like a Rep Side Griffins team) but for refs. It is all very cool and I think makes refereeing something special.
  3. You get a chance to make a National or International “Team.” As I mentioned before, I quickly found out, much of the encouragement and support I was getting was LARGELY because I was YOUNG, FIT and a WOMAN. I highlight this because since this is going to the UCLA alumnae group, I am hoping I can inspire some others out there to follow in my footsteps. I think largely because of the HUGE growth in collegiate women’s rugby, as well as of course the Olympics in 2016 where women’s rugby will be on center stage, USA Rugby Referees are actively searching for Female talent to represent the US on the International IRB referee panel. Now, even as I write this, I am “technically” a bit old (I am 32) but because there are so few female refs in general, I am actually get to be one of the top refs in the U.S. right now. But, I know, in an ideal world, there would be some 22-25 year olds who are ready to try a new challenge and check out refereeing. So, maybe you won’t make a national team as a player – you have a great opportunity now to make a national team or even make the Olympics as a ref. At the National level, you are treated as an athlete. At the CRC last year, we had our own trainers and physios, we had our own changing room, our own team meals and transpo etc. It is as close as I will ever be to being a professional athlete and I love it.
  4. You get to travel. Tied in to #3, I have had an amazing chance to travel – and on USA Rugby or my Southern California referee society’s dime. On any given month, I am probably going to at least another state if not at least another part of CA to referee a match or a tournament. In the last year alone, I have gone to Minnesota, Seattle, College Station TX, Virginia Beach, Philadelphia, New York, and Stanford (twice).

So, how can you be a ref:

SCRRS Rugby Referee Karen Fong - Photo by Frank Hafner

Check in with your local area ref society (If you are in socal, yours would be and just email the contact and ask when their next Level 1 ref certification course is. It is an all-day course. if you are a youth coach, many times the team will pay for your certification.

Bottom line

I would recommend you all get certified. Even if you don’t want to move up all the ranks, there is no denying that youth rugby is growing, especially youth girls’ rugby. GIVE BACK to the rugby community which I know has given us ALL so much in our life to be happy for. Every Saturday, there are literally HUNDREDS of games that go on without a certified ref and you can do a lot to help grow this game if you will contribute your time. I promise you there is nothing like refereeing a youth Under 14s girls match and seeing them put together some great phase of rugby and being right there when a girl scores her first try. You really do get a thrill from being a part of that. I also think it is great for young girls to see females in every aspect of their sport and that starts with referees.

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