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  • What does it take to referee at Super Rugby Level?

    By Scott Rogan

    I wish I could sit back and regale you with tales of my Super Rugby and Test refereeing career, but I cannot. My career as a referee peaked some time ago, and it was more like a small hill than a soaring peak. I am not holding my breath waiting for the phone call inviting me into the Super Rugby referees Squad, but just in case Lyndon my number is in the book. These days I spend more time coaching referees than refereeing, but I am happy with that. I see my job now as helping develop the next generations of referees. Inevitably among the young guys, the question comes - So what does it take to make it to Super Rugby level?
    When searching for an answer to that question I thought there was only one person to ask. Someone who knows, because he has made it – twice – James Leckie.


    James Leckie celebrates his 100th Shute Shield match with Richard Goswell (left) and Ben Wawn (right) 3rd August 2013.

    I sat down for a coffee and a chat with James Leckie the week of his 100th Shute Shield match. For those of you outside Sydney the Shute Shield is the Premiership Competition in NSW that has seen some of the world’s best players playing for historic clubs like Randwick, Sydney University and the perennial strugglers, but very historic club, Parramatta. Players such as the Ella Brothers, Nick Farr-Jones and current Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, Super Rugby coaches Michael Cheika, Michael Foley, and Damien Hill have all played or coached Shute Shield rugby. Australian referees such as Roger Vanderfield, Dick Byres, Wayne Erickson, Peter Marshall, Stuart Dickenson and Steve Walsh have all refereed Shute Shield rugby.

    James, was very candid about his refereeing, his first stint in Super Rugby, his dropping from the panel and his fight back to Super Rugby this year. For me this was a very interesting insight into elite refereeing from a very well respected official. A story I hope I can do justice.

    James began refereeing whilst he was a Year 9 student at Trinity Grammar School in Sydney. He credits a long term Trinity teacher Peter Goetze with encouraging him to start refereeing. Trinity has a strong culture of producing referees among their students, teachers and parents. Rugby Refereeing is still driven to this day by Peter Goetze. Along with James the school boasts as a teacher former international referee and current TMO George Ayoub and the ARU Manager of Referee Programs and Shute Shield referee Jamie McGregor is another Trinity Old Boy.

    James, like many young rugby players, spent his Saturdays refereeing at Trinity before playing for the school later in the day. In 1993 James played 1st XV for Trinity in his last year of school. He downplays his footballing ability claiming to have been lucky to reach this level. He was plagued with shoulder injuries through this time, which eventually ended his playing career. After school in 1994, he played a year of Colts at Sydney University, before the shoulder injury ended his playing days.

    James began refereeing with the NSW Referees Association in 1995 after shoulder surgery. He refereed his way through the NSW Suburban rugby that year and refereed at the National Women’s titles later in the year. In 1995 he was awarded the Col Roy Memorial Trophy by the NSW Referees Association, for the referee with the most potential in their first 5 years refereeing with the Association. The list of winners of this trophy is impressive including Wayne Erickson, Dan Cheever, Steve Hardy, Angus Gardner, Richard Goswell, Guy Grinham, Will Houston. Regular names at Shute Shield, Super Rugby and Test levels. He has won a number of other awards along the way with the Association, culminating in being named the Dick Byres Medallist (Referee of the Year) in 2012.

    When speaking about his journey to Super Rugby James made this observation “Take the opportunities you are given. You’ve got to enjoy that journey, because if it is all about making it to Super Rugby you don’t enjoy the journey. A lot of that is out of your hands.”

    In his journey James Leckie has refereed a number of National tournaments, Women’s, Under 16s and Schools, before travelling other countries for the Under 19 World Cup in South Africa, Under 20s in Wales and Japan and Under 21s in France. He also spent time as a Sevens referee, refereeing a Commonwealth Games Final, as well as finals in Hong Kong and Los Angeles. All experiences that helped him along the way to Super Rugby level, he has clearly enjoyed his journey. “You need to be patient and celebrate what other people do well. You need luck, someone to watch you, someone to believe in you. There are some good referees, some better than me, that didn’t get the luck they needed to make it to the next level” he said.

    So luck plays a part?

    “Making it to the super rugby level there is a lot of luck involved. Timing, who else is around at the time and how they are going. One thing I learnt early is not to worry about what other people are doing, if it opens up for you, then it opens up. I also have a faith in god and believe at different times he wants you in different places.”

    A big part of journey for all referees is learning from your mistakes and disasters. It is something we all need, although you hope they are not too big. Remember this quote from Albert Einstein “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Referees, like players make mistakes, our mistakes are usually more visible than those of players. James is no exception. He has had his share of not so great moments.

    James recalled the day he refereed a 2nd grade game at Parramatta. He issued a yellow card to one of the Parramatta flankers in the first half, and then in the second half he had to issue another yellow card to the same player, which in normal circumstances means a red card right? Not when the player points out his twin brother and says ‘that was him’. So did someone get away with 2 yellow cards? Possibly, but to this day James doesn’t know, but from then on, he never issued a card without checking the players number.

    James made his Shute Shield debut in 2002 when he refereed Gordon v Warringah on Chatswood Oval. He has refereed regularly at Shute Shield level since then. He is now one of the relatively few referees since 1892 to have refereed 100 Shute Shield matches.

    Another learning experience came on the day of his first television game in 2004. It was a local derby between Eastern Suburbs and Southern Districts at Woolhara Oval. The clubs in the off season had some players move from one club to the other and there was no love lost between them. The game turned into trench warfare and James by his own admission was unprepared for this, perhaps feeling too relaxed and over confident, not having had too many problems in the Shute Shield so far. This game took him by surprise and his reaction through the game he would like to no doubt change. By the time the game had finished he had issued 5 yellow cards and 1 red card. He admits he was too self-focused and not focused on the game.

    On returning to school on the Monday he was not allowed to forget it by his students. They walked around issuing yellow cards all day, and he found his pigeon hole filled with yellow cardboard. He can laugh about it….now. “Remember you are there to serve the game, it’s not about you” he said. Lesson learnt.

    James began refereeing at Super Rugby at Newlands in Cape Town on 29th April 2006. In his debut he controlled the Stormers v Crusaders, 2 quality teams at a fantastic venue. The Crusaders were then the best Super Rugby side, having won the Super 12 in 2005 and they went onto win the new Super 14 title in 2006. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were on the way up and the Crusaders were being coached at the time by Robbie Deans. One hell of a debut. In those days most games were refereed by a neutral referee and James spent a great deal of time travelling. Between 2006 and 2009 of the 20 Super Rugby matches he refereed, only 5 of those were in Australia. In 2006 James also became a Test referee, making his Test debut refereeing Hong Kong v Korea in Hong Kong. Not a Bledisloe Cup match up, but a Test match none the less. He has refereed 3 more tests in Papua New Guinea in 2009 and 2011.

    He smiles when he speaks of his travels, especially in South Africa, a country he clearly loves visiting. He did referee half of his first 20 games there. In those days James Leckie was one 5 or 6 fulltime Australian referees. He would often spend weeks at a time in South Africa, enjoying the unique country and culture, living a dream, and refereeing at some of the great rugby venues of the world, in a Rugby mad country. Then it all came to an end.

    Ironically his first stint in Super Rugby ended the place it all started. His last game was at Newlands in Cape Town on the 2nd May 2009 when he controlled Stormers v Chiefs. After that James was dropped from the Super Rugby panel.

    For some retirement from refereeing may have come to mind. Did Jame Leckie consider giving it away?
    “I hoped I could get back, but didn't think I necessarily could. I thought I was good enough too” he said. “I enjoy rugby and refereeing 1st grade too much to retire.” A great deal in James life changed after that. His role as a fulltime referee ended, and he returned to Trinity Grammar School full time this time as a teacher. He started to forge a career outside rugby. He and his wife had 2 children, events that put life into perspective for most people. All the time he continued referee Shute Shield in Sydney.

    He reflected on what he believes led to him being dropped from Super Rugby. “When things didn't go well it was because I was too technical, too serious, trying to be everything that everyone else wanted, rather than focusing on my strengths and listening to my coach and working on refereeing the way I am capable of refereeing. I can’t referee the way Stuart Dickenson referees, I can’t be Jonathan Kaplan, and I can only be me.”

    Although it is natural that you try to learn from others James makes the point “As soon as you stop being you, you’re gone. I admired the way Vinnie Munro spoke with players in the downtime, or the way Steve Walsh manages players, they are people you look to and take snippets from, but as soon as you start to try and be them you’re lost.”

    He returned to Sydney Club Rugby with the aim of finding James Leckie again. He had fallen into the trap that many referees do and changed who they are and the way they do things when they referee the important games. So many times I have heard referee coaches say to referees in Grand Finals or Representative games don’t change the way you referee, that is what has got you here, that’s what we want. Only to see the referee control the game differently to the way they usually do.

    “The challenge of being dropped out of the panel was to come back and be James Leckie again. I love refereeing 1st grade, I am so relaxed. I have earned a reputation over time and you don’t have the challenges of people having a go at you. You can relax and enjoy yourself, really enjoy your refereeing and inevitably you start refereeing at your best.” Referee at his best he did. He found his relaxed side and refereed well consistently. James refereed Shute Shield semi-finals regularly in this time, which led to him to being named as the Dick Byres Medallist – NSW Rugby Unions Referee of the Year. An honour shared by some of great names of NSW Rugby Referees, George Ayoub, Stuart Dickenson, John McCarthy and Flip van der Westuizen.

    James admits he over analysed his game the first time around. He told me “It doesn’t help me to sit down and analyse 50 clips, being a maths teacher and a details man, it just floods my brain with too much information. I’m better off letting that go.” He had to learn to strike that balance between being underprepared as he was in 2004 at Woolhara Oval and over analysing things as he did in his first Super Rugby stint. “The challenge is refereeing what is in front of you and not over preparing for a game. When you start to analyse every little bit and anticipate that this bloke does that there, you start to look for that.”

    The biggest difference he found between Super Rugby and Shute Shield rugby the first time out was the review process. In first grade referees have mainly their coach and people you trust that give you advice. In James first stint in Super Rugby referees would have coaches from NZ and SA who they may not know and on many occasions giving conflicting advice. Team coaches are also never shy at dispensing advice week to week. James speaks fondly of friends and fellow referees Dan Cheever and Matt Goddard with whom he shared many experiences and the journey as referees. All three have supported each other throughout their careers and through their respective journeys. The support of those around you is an important thing for referees to have, not just in your team of 3 on any given day, but with your mates within refereeing. To be able to bounce ideas and concerns off other referees who you know and trust is an important support.

    Michael Tanzer, a well-known coach in refereeing circles in Australia is another important figure in James Leckie’s comeback to Super Rugby in 2013. “Mick Tanzer still believed in me after the first time and told me we can give this another go. Helped me to enjoy my rugby again and not over analyse. Gave me big picture things to work on.”

    One of the important aspects in James' comeback as a Super Rugby referee was his ability as an Assistant Referee. A skill much neglected and maligned, it kept James in touch with international rugby. Between 2009 and present James continued to receive appointments as an Assistant Referee both at Super Rugby level and Test level. “If I wasn’t ARing well, I would never have got the chance to referee at Super Rugby a second time. I would have been off the scene and forgotten all about, but because I was still there as a respected AR, the referees liked having me around and I do get what they are trying to achieve.”

    A good Assistant Referee can make or break a referee, and many referees do not give it the attention it deserves. Disappointment in not refereeing the game often clouds many referees’ thoughts on being an Assistant. James made one the most telling comments I have heard regarding Assistant Refereeing “You have got to take pride in helping that guy to have a good game. If that’s not your attitude then don’t do the game. You have to go out there to help that referee have the best game he can. A lot of that comes from not feeding him too much information, encouraging him at times, helping him relax and taking things out of the game that he doesn’t need to worry about.”

    Since 2007 James has been an Assistant Referee in 19 test matches involving the All Blacks, in some of their biggest tests outside the World Cup. He has been appointed to tests against France, Wales, Ireland and South Africa among others. He was quite frank about his on-going career as an Assistant Referee, “I have been lucky to be involved in games that I have never been good enough to referee.”

    The lesson here is don’t blow off being an Assistant Referee. It is one of the important roles in the game and a good AR can make or break a referee. It is an important skill for you as a referee. Look, listen and learn from your peers “There is so much to be gained from ARing. The skill in AR is knowing when not to make a decision. Reading what the referee wants and knowing to give that. Knowing when to offer that advice and how to support that referee before, during and after the match. Learning from those referees that are at a higher level than you. Get all the wonderful experiences in that as well.”

    At the end of 2012 James was named in the Super Rugby panel for 2013. He was back!

    On the 22nd February 2013 a group of NSW Referees headed to Melbourne to watch Melbourne Rebels play the ACT Brumbies play. The referees were not there to support either side, but James Leckie on his return as a referee to Super Rugby. The referees support network at its best. Many of this group had travelled to Brisbane earlier to support Angus Gardner the night he made his Super Rugby debut. Celebrate others achievements. To me it speaks volumes of these referees that although they are competing against each other for the best games available, and for limited places at the top levels, that they travel to games interstate to support their mates.

    In the 3 years he had been away, what changes have occurred in Super Rugby? Lyndon Bray for one. Lyndon Bray, a former International Referee and NZ High Performance Referee Manager was been appointed by SANZAR as the Game Manager in 2011. He takes control of the Match officials and liaison between the officials and the team coaches. Bray has been very clear in advising referees and team coaches how he expects the game to be refereed. Conflicting advice to referees is a thing of the past says James. The referees work far more as a team now than they did James first time around. “Now it is very much a team. My first time through there we all did things differently and there were little secrets, now we very much help each other a lot more. It is a lot clearer. Lyndon Bray has made it very clear how he wants the game refereed and it has become a lot more about management and being able to change player behaviour rather than the technical what % of advantage did you get or how many knock-ons you might have missed” he said.

    Still not everything was smooth sailing, “Even in the first 2 games back this time, I was too technical again. I need the ultimatum ‘we need to see James Leckie referee this week or you’re finished’ for me to realise that how I prepare for 1st grade, where I go well, and to take that into Super Rugby and that worked really well.”

    James refereed 4 Super Rugby matches in 2013 and has enjoyed being back. He also continued to be appointed as an Assistant Referee throughout the year, including a cold winter’s night in Canberra for the ACT Brumbies v Cheetahs semi-final.

    James Leckie has always been a quality referee. By his own admissions he changed what James Leckie did well to please others and because he thought he needed to do so to remain at the top level. In the end that hurt him and he ended up not refereeing Super Rugby for 3 years. He worked his way back by finding James Leckie again. Producing the performances those around him knew he could and doing what he does best. A lesson for all young referees.

    Those of us that see James referee regularly are all pleased to see the relaxed James Leckie we have seen countless times in Sydney club rugby, in Super Rugby.

    Finally I would like to finish with James' words on refereeing.

    "I like to think of myself as a players' referee, trying to understand, and have empathy with, what they are attempting to achieve. I don't like to be the dominant, whistle-blowing school master, which I revert to when I get too technical. So it is a difficult balance. I want to be the referee that players are comfortable with but at the same time not be too familiar, as the relationship between referee and player can never be the same as the friendly relationship between two players. I always try to give teams the opportunity to play to their strengths legally and in this way I hope to earn their respect. I f teams want to have you out there, that is reward in itself and half your battle is won."

    Thank you James for your time, candour and insight.
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