When Mike O’Brien was first asked to have a go at rugby refereeing, he said he’d have a crack, and if he liked it, he might keep going.
Nineteen years later, O’Brien hit a milestone on Saturday, refereeing his 150th senior game, Mackenzie versus Celtic, in Fairlie.
The score reflected the significance of the event, an upset win for Mackenzie 19-14.
While Saturday marked his 150th senior game, O’Brien has refereed an estimated 350 to 400 games since he picked up a whistle in 2002.
He moved back to South Canterbury from Te Anau a couple of years earlier, and though he had played rugby there, he had to give it up in about 1990 due to work and family commitments.
He become a volunteer firefighter instead.
“When we moved to Timaru, I couldn’t do that.” (Timaru is staffed by paid firefighters).
“My father had refereed, and Tony Kelly, who was the referee education officer then, got wind that I wasn’t doing much . . . so he knocked on the door, and came in and had a cup of tea and asked if I’d like to have a go at refereeing,” O’Brien said.
“I said, I’ll give it a crack and if I like it I might keep going.
“Nineteen years later I’m still going. I’m still figuring out whether I’m any good.”
O’Brien keeps a diary of his games – “I’m a bit of a trainspotter in that regard” – but even without that, he can easily remember his first senior game in 2005, between Old Boys and Temuka.
“I’ll never forget that. It was a bit daunting, but I got through it.
“When you do your first senior game, it’s a big deal, and I was getting phone calls that morning from people I didn’t really know very well, like first division referee Lachie McLeod.
“It was nice to have that support, and that’s happened all the way through.”
On Saturday, fellow referees turned out in force to mark the occasion.
“Ten or so members of the referees association were up there because it was my 150th. So it was pretty cool to have guys I still look up to supporting me.”
O’Brien makes sure he pays that forward, offering support and encouraging younger referees coming up the ranks.
“We are a team, and part of the bigger rugby family, at the end of the day.
“It can be lonely at times, and we really encourage refs to come back to Alpine Energy Stadium to socialise.”
Also on the team is wife Amanda, whose support has allowed him to pursue his refereeing career.
There have been many highlights over the years: Hamersley Cup finals in 2016 and 2017, and a memorable semifinal in 2016, when Temuka and Waimate were tied 45-all at fulltime, sending the game into extra time.
Neither team managed to score again, so the result was decided on a countback of tries.
“I remember turning around at the end and looking at the scoreboard, and thinking, ‘it’s a bloody draw!’
“I was exhausted at the end of it. I think I did something over 8.4km that game.”
He has taken part in referee exchanges with Australia, been assistant referee for Crusaders v Highlanders warm-up games in Timaru, and still remembers having international referee Colin Hawke as his assistant referee for a game in Kurow.
The muddiest game of rugby he has ever seen took place in 2008, the 125th consecutive exchange between Timaru Boys’ High School and Waitaki Boys’ High school. In the pouring rain, despite Timaru being in white and Waitaki in black, at the end of the game, the only way he could tell the teams apart was by the coloured strip at the top of their socks.
O’Brien has mostly managed to avoid major injury. He injured his Achilles 10 minutes into a game in Southland, has pulled a hamstring, and had a couple of close calls when he nearly got in the way of a player, a boot, or a ball.
“You’ve got to get in amongst it, but you learn where to be. You develop a sixth sense of where the game is going.”
Referees can be on the receiving end of aggro although they seldom hear what’s being said on the sideline when they’re in the middle but O’Brien says it’s something they get used to.
“It depends on your definition of aggro, I guess.
“Pretty much every game there are questions at some point, normally when teams are under pressure.
“Players are under pressure, they’re tired, and you’ve just got to work through it with them.
“I’ve learned to pre-empt it when it’s coming, and try to communicate quite early and often, and keep a bit of a positive spin on it.”
The legs are getting a bit sore nowadays, and O’Brien says he doesn’t want to do the game a disservice.
“Refereeing has kept me fit and active – I’m still in a competitive sport at the age of 50 – but my speed has gone and I’m getting closer and closer to the middle as the years go by.”
Over the last few years he has been bringing younger referees through and passing on everything he has learned.
“I have got so much out of it.
“I owe refereeing; refereeing owes me nothing.”