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On his debut as a referee at Rugby World Cup 2019™, Ben O’Keeffe shares his memories of growing up in the rugby culture of New Zealand and the scenes of celebration when they hosted and won the tournament in 2011.

Watch Episode 4: Ben O'Keeffe

Dunedin To Sapporo Dome

So, this is it, my first Rugby World Cup as a referee.

I still get goosebumps thinking about the moment when I got the call.

I grew up watching this event and recognising it as the pinnacle of my sport and profession. I’ve worked hard over the years to put myself in the frame to be selected, and it was about four years ago when I allowed myself to think this might become a reality for me.

When I finally got that call from Alain Rolland, I was absolutely delighted, such a great feeling. Then there’s the excitement around what’s to come. I’ve only ever been a spectator at previous Rugby World Cups, on the outside looking in, so this is an incredible opportunity that I have in Japan.

My friends and family have been so supportive through the levels of my career and came along to Super Rugby and Test games where I’ve been the referee. I’ll be thinking of them when I run out on to the field to referee Australia v Fiji at the Sapporo Dome.

I grew up playing all kinds of sports; cricket, rugby, soccer.

My dad refereed for years; I’d run the water on for him.  One regret he had was that he had not started young enough and therefore didn’t get to progress as far as he would have liked. It was his encouragement that led me to give it a go when I went to University.

You want to be involved in a game like rugby. Being a referee was my way.

I’m a proud Kiwi. The people there love the game, and with their passion brings pressure, but to be honest, it makes it even more special to be involved.

There will always be pressure because sometimes people might forget, we’re human beings. You get nervous before games like anyone else. If you’re nervous, that means you care.

Certainly, no one can question my eyesight. I’m an Ophthalmologist. I’ve been lucky enough to balance both careers over the last couple of years as being a professional referee has become a full-time commitment.

That commitment comes about because we have to be just as fit as the players, physically and mentally. The margins are also as small for us as they are for the players. We need to get it right.

You have to be someone who thrives in those type of high-pressure environments.

I don’t know of any referee that craves the attention and scrutiny we inevitably get, but you accept it as part of the job. We work together more and more as referees to ensure we don’t become the story of the game – that’s what we strive for.

The closest I’ve been to Rugby World Cup so far has been when the tournament came to New Zealand in 2011. It’s one of those countries that’s a true heartland for rugby, and for a small country like ours, to host the biggest competition in the game, was absolutely massive. Added to that was the fact that thousands of fans traveled from faraway places to be there and spend a few weeks supporting their teams, so New Zealand was literally packed.

Ben O'Keeffe at the Aviva Stadium as Ireland take on South Africa, 11/11/2017 ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Ben O’Keeffe at the Aviva Stadium as Ireland take on South Africa, 11/11/2017
©INPHO/Bryan Keane

I got to go to one of the games; Romania V England in Dunedin. There were thousands of Romanian supporters that day boosted by some of the local neutrals. Dunedin sold out of yellow buckets as the thing to do for Romanian fans was to cut out a face in a yellow bucket and wear it over your head. So, there they were, thousands of fans in the stands with buckets on their heads.

Then the Irish fans arrived and took over the Octagon in Dunedin, where I went to University, and they brought all the colour and fun that they’re famous for.

It gave you a real sense of what the tournament’s about; bringing different nations together to enjoy the all the entertainment and excitement that rugby brings.

I was in my last year at med school facing into final exams. As part of that, I was shipped to a hospital in central Otago, a very rural area, no satellite TV, so for part of the tournament I was kept away from the distraction of Rugby World Cup while I got on with my studies. I’d head to the local pub to watch the games, but otherwise, I was back in the clinic.

By the time the final came around, I was back in Dunedin. I ditched the study and went out to watch the game.

It was a really tough game, worthy of a final. Just when it looked like New Zealand would take control of the game, I remember the French captain, Thierry Dusautoir barreling through to score that try against the post and bring France right back into it. It showed such great leadership like Dusautoir was saying “follow me”, and it pushed the game right to the wire for the 80 minutes.

New Zealand fans craved a home Rugby World Cup win so much, the outpouring of emotion and celebration when we won was incredible. I’ll never forget those scenes, people pouring out into the streets, hugging each other, cars going by with flags flying from the windows tooting their horns. It was an amazing moment.

Now, to be involved in the tournament there’s so much I am looking forward to.

I know from refereeing big test matches, you always get a moment during the anthems where you can take in the atmosphere and the crowd, after that it’s down to business, right up to the final whistle. While the game is on, everything is moving so fast you rarely get an opportunity to take it all in.

I refereed Ireland versus South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in November 2017. Ireland had a conversion at 80 minutes to finish the game, and by that stage my job was all but done. The Springboks were getting ready to charge out, and Joey Carbery was lining up the kick a few metres away from where I was standing. I remember looking around at that scene and thinking, “It’s unreal to be part of this, it’s so amazing.” I just allowed myself that little moment to appreciate it all.

I’m very grateful to be in the position I am in as a professional referee. It’s an overwhelming buzz to have a sense of what rugby brings to communities around the world and to be in the middle of it all.

I’ll always be a rugby fan. I love the game. That fan in me will never change, and it’s what drives me to do the best job that I can do as a referee.



September 2019.

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If you enjoyed Ben’s piece you might like to read Nigel Owens – “Born Into Rugby“.

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