First published in Rugby League World, Issue 386 (June 2013)
“Getting it wrong is the worst feeling in the world.”
If Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady then Steve Ganson was definitely the Iron Ref, famous for being the one who could make the biggest of decisions in the biggest of games.
Catching many people by surprise, Steve recently retired from his on field refereeing career to take up a behind the scenes role in the refereeing department at RFLHQ at Red Hall, Leeds.
Referees play a huge part in the drama of sport, they can become huge characters in their own right. Steve Ganson earned real reverence from players: it was either his way or the hard way and in that regard you could guarantee he would be consistent every week.
The news of his retirement at the age of 43 feels like the end of an era and makes me appreciate whatever time I have left as a player.
Steve kindly invited me to his new base at Red Hall to talk with him about his decision to step down and what he would be getting up to in his new role. When a player visits Red Hall, it’s usually to get a fine or suspension and pulling down the long driveway to the large pre-Georgian building with the leafy back drop, has in the past felt like a trip to Castle Wewelsburg for me.
This time I was looking forward to it. Walking through the big doors and into the main reception, a happy Ben Thaler escorted me through the winding corridors past offices full of RFL officials. Eventually we reached a big room which contained a busy James Child typing away on a computer and a smaller office with three recognisable faces busy in conversation, John Sharp, Ian Smith and a bright Steve Ganson.
“It was hard to make that decision to leave refereeing because you have spent your life working to get top matches and the experience. At the beginning of this year, no one would have ever thought that Stuart Cummings would have been leaving his position. There was a review of the department and I was approached with this particular role by the directors. I thought about it and I’ll be honest I didn’t really want to finish and I’m still coming to terms with it. But I have no regrets about it; I was given an opportunity and I wasn’t made to take it.
“If you knew retirement was coming at the end of the year, you would spend some time savouring the last games. We all take these things for granted. The buzz when you get out there and the adrenaline rush, turning up to the games and looking forward to the big matches. It must be really tough for the players who have their careers finished on one particular game. One week I was doing the Hull derby and a couple of weeks later I had finished. It would have been a brilliant way to finish on a World Cup, Challenge Cup final or a Grand Final, that would have been the ultimate but it doesn’t always pan out the way you want.
“It gets scary when you get to this age because you wonder who is going to employ a 43 year old bloke again, so to have this opportunity working within the RFL disciplinary and also stay involved with the referees, as well as doing video ref was a good thing.
“I had my teeth into it right from day one. I went to Hull KR and did the video ref but it was a weird feeling not getting out on the field, that will take some adjusting to. Being in front of big crowds which whilst it has its pressures also has a massive enjoyment factor; I’ll miss that forever.
“I have learnt a lot from various people in my time and it would be unfair to mention them all but I have been here under Greg McCallum, Geoff Berry, Stuart Cummings who were great coaches, then there are others involved supporting me; ex-refs, touch judges but also Super League players and coaches who you can learn a lot from. They all had input at various times of my career. There are coaches who I have had run ins with who have sat down with me years later and talked to me about different aspects they have been unhappy with when I have refereed their teams, that gives you experience going forward.
“My role now basically means that I’ll be coaching the Super League referees and I’ll be running the match review panel. There’s a fair bit to do.
“We do look at themes week to week and things that are creeping into the game. One week we review that the referees ten metres could have been better or teams are pushing refs on the ten and leaving the line too quickly; we look at the referee’s vocabulary and ask if they are setting the ten properly, do they keep their position on the ten or are the moving forward too early. Are the rucks at the right speeds? All those kind of things. Then we put drills together and get it as close to match days as we can for them.”
COMRADE TO COMMANDER
Having spent many years full time with the current crop of referees, competing with them for the big games I wondered how the initial leap from comrade to commander had influenced the dynamics of Steve’s relationship with the other referees.
“Jon Sharp will oversee the department which is a good thing but I think the lads know I’m a fairly straight, and I hope, funny bloke and I know I have a lot of support from them. I respect the lads, I know what they do and how much time they put into it, I know this current group well and I don’t think there’s much they could do that will surprise me. You have to respect the people you do a job with and at the end of the day you can’t agree on everything it would be a boring world if we did. There will be times when I will have to say things and do things and I’m prepared for that.
“I have always believed the best makes its way to the top, the cream always rises. I know there will be lots of challenging games between now and the end of the year, the people who get selected for those major games shouldn’t be a shock to anyone else, we will know the form referees going into the finals and the play offs. I hope that there are seven in-form referees but I think the best will identify themselves. It’s down to them and there’s one less for them to compete with now!”
“I have been involved in the last two or three World Cups and I wish I was involved in this one but those who are will definitely be competitive with the referees from the other nations. I think there will be two referees from England, probably the same from Australia, New Zealand, France. All the referees will be trying to get the final, the prize is the final. I would pick our lads against any of the other ones for sure and I certainly hope it is an England referee in the final.
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
Having watched the ANZAC Test between Australia and New Zealand I was interested in the new philosophy they have out there with referee being the ‘primary’ decision maker in the video referee scenarios only to be overruled if something significant was evident. I was of the opinion that this reverse engineering had an effect on the resulting outcome compared to before.
“In an ideal world we would have all the same systems and we would have video referees in every game but people have a responsibility for funding and there are budget constraints within the game, but we all want to get it as good as we can.
“In the NRL all their games are on TV and that creates a slightly different philosophy on how a game can be refereed. Over here you have you two games on TV and the others have ‘in goal judges’. The NRL also has two referees making decisions.
“With their video referee system, all the on field official is doing is giving their initial decision to the video referee and that was geared to take away the ‘benefit of the doubt’.
“Still, a referee can go and say it’s a try but if the guy has clearly lost the ball then the video ref won’t give it. I think we generally do give our decisions first as referees too but when the technology is there on the TV I don’t think you can take the chances.
“The video work in a lot of cases is tougher than the on field work because a lot of the tough decisions are left to the video ref, there’s a lot going on inside the studio and you’re under time constraints to get the decisions made and hopefully get them right.
I wanted to know what Steve’s take on the NRL was and now that he is in a different role, which rules, if any, he thought where a hindrance or even a complete waste of time.
“I never liked a player automatically getting sent to the bin for a late challenge on a kicker. I like the NRL time limit for goal line dropouts under 40 seconds, it keeps the flow of the games. I think the quick scrums to stop time should result in all those players who got there should have to stay and pack down in that scrum.”
I am fascinated with what makes a character who they are. Whether he was your friend or foe, one thing everyone agrees on is that Steve Ganson always had the minerals to make the big decisions when they mattered.
“I have always been a strong willed person right from being a young kid. I think you should stand up for what you believe in and I don’t like the people who sit on the fence and never make a decision. I would rather make a decision in my life and be wrong than not do it at all. I tell my kids the same. In my refereeing I was always determined that that’s what I was getting paid to do: make a decision.
“If I get something wrong it doesn’t kill me, you have to dust yourself down and understand why you made that decision in your life or on the field then move on.
“When I started refereeing all my mates thought it was hilarious, they found it dead funny and said ‘you’ll never get past amateur Gans’. That becomes a challenge to me. Then it was ‘you will never get Super League or Wembley’. It depends what you’re made of, some people are happy to sit back and go along with that but I’m never satisfied. I always wanted a Challenge Cup final. When I had done it I wanted another and another, I just want to do something better than the previous year.
“I was brought up in Haydock in a very normal working class family, both my parents where normal people and tragically I lost them both when I was young. I had to grow up a bit and stand up for a few things. I had a younger brother and had to dig in and get on and I wanted to do the very best I could. Now, rugby has taken me to places I couldn’t have dreamed, to Australia, New Zealand, USA, all over and it has brought a lot of pleasure, it has been a great game to be involved in.
“My eldest son is 17 and he has been going to games since he was little and he just didn’t like it at all when I got stick or was going to my car with people going off at me. My other son is 15 and he loves it and finds it dead funny when he sees things on twitter. My younger son is the same. I remember doing Leeds and Hull in the Challenge Cup final in 2005. Your family can go but my eldest son didn’t want to because he didn’t like the hassle.
“My family have always been great, they’re supportive and when things go wrong they might say ‘why did you make that decision’ like a lot of people and I’ll be like ‘oh I don’t know I thought it was something different’, but they’re always loyal, they’re there for you, love you and care for you. My son will text saying I hope you get this final or that final then when he asks if I got it, if I say no he’ll say he still thinks I’m the best.”
How much have you seen the game change over the course of your career?
“The game has changed a lot, the seasons, organisation of divisions; I remember going from winter to summer and it was like doing two in one and went of forever. I remember games getting called off at Thrum Hall and Watersheddings because of the frost; summer rugby as a product is unrecognisable speed wise and fitness wise because the players went full time. I remember the 5 metre rule and because of the difference in seasons you would have Australian stars coming over to play for 6 or 7 weeks then going home. It’s changed massively: in the first years of Super League; the ruck speed seemed like 100mph. It has evolved, there seems to be far more British players coming through now. I’m a big believer that things move, change and evolve and you have to move with it and try to improve it along the way.
“The Hull clubs were always good places to go. The Southstanders at Leeds and the Warrington fans always had banter and obviously at Wigan, because I’m from St Helens, I got booed warming up there.
“I have had some great times in my career, I have been dead fortunate. There are plenty who have refereed for years and not had a third of the honours. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, I just mean I appreciate it so much. I have had dark days but I’ve had some damn good ones too.”
A referee of Steve’s experience has been there in the biggest of games and like many players must have faced those heart stopping forks in the road where time slows to a near halt and the moon shines on you with all its might like a giant spot light so that the world can witness your next action or decision. The sending off of Great Britain’s Adrian Morley in the first minute of an Ashes Test against Australia back in 2003 was that type of moment.
“When you’re an English referee in charge of Great Britain or England v Australia at a packed house first Test and you know how important it is. It was my first test involving Australia and I wanted to do well. Then you have an incident with Moz where you’re thinking does he stay or go in the first 12 seconds! All those years I spent refereeing A-team games sending the likes of Barrie McDermott off at Wigan and all those nights where you learn the hard decisions, you get to a point in your career where that’s put to the test and you ask the question ‘what are you made of, who are you, are you going to make a decision or bottle out’?
“It was one of those times when you have to believe you are just refereeing two teams, one in white and one in green and just have to treat both sets with the same amount of due care and attention and that’s why Moz got sent off.
“That was the first and the last time with Moz and one of the good things about him as a bloke was that from then on we never had anything other than a real good relationship which tells you something about the fella. It’s turned out that we have great mutual respect for each other.
“Over the course of my career I had a fair few run ins with several players, Graeme Bradley and Jimmy Lowes at Bradford for example. One day at Halifax I sin binned Jimmy three times in one game. They were real tough games at Thrum Hall then. I was in my 20’s and I think Jimmy thought ‘who’s this guy?’ He was always a real tough competitor. I had loads of time for Terry Newton too, I had lots of laughs with him and I always found him a real good lad. He would give it out but he could take it back too, he never moaned about being penalised. Times have changed; we wear the mic now and have a responsibility to make sure your dialogue is suitable for the wider audience at home which makes your management strategies a little harder at times. Let’s face it, it’s a man’s game on the field and I’ll really miss those types of things on the field – the funny stuff.”
The big question I suppose many might ask is now that he’s in a less objective role is he free to support his home town St Helens?
“I always lived in St Helens and whenever people ask me this I always say you’re not born a referee; I didn’t come out of my mother with a whistle and a red card and I didn’t decide at 11 that people picked on me so I was going to be a ref. I played rugby at Blackbrook. I injured a bone in my wrist and decided to take up reffing. I lived in Haydock though, right in between Saints and Wigan and believe it or not some mates watched Wigan, some watched Saints and I would go watch both teams. I remember the Wigan and Manly game at Central Park when it was packed out. I got into reffing because I had an interest in the sport; it is professional sport and few people decide to take it up when they’re young.
“I’m that far out of supporting now because there was a long period until we went full time where you weren’t allowed to referee your home town so if your team was in the Challenge Cup, for example, it meant I couldn’t referee it so you had to wait for them to get knocked out before you had a chance of doing a final, even if you were the best at the time.
“There’s no other walk of life where your home town limits your ability to do your job. All you want to do as a referee is go to a game and do the very best you can because it is an awful feeling when you know you have made a bad mistake and a team has lost because of one of your errors.
“There will always be a feeling from people where they think we do it on purpose but I can assure you getting it wrong is the worst feeling in the world. You know any wrongdoing is a perceived as an in justice and you’re going to have to referee that team again a few weeks later in another big game. We are just human beings. It’s awful when you know that through an error or being in the wrong position you misjudge a pass and watch it on replay and its five yards forward you think ‘how did I not see that?’
“Whilst I love the job there are not a lot of people banging the door down to do it. It’s very tough to do over the 80 minute period and to get most things right. We have had training clips on the TV whilst every Super League coach in the league is in the room – half of them think one thing whilst the other half think the other but ultimately someone has to make a decision. The best referees are the ones who make the best decisions over a period of time and don’t have an effect over the flow of a game or how it finishes.
What are your thoughts on Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and his ban for biting an opponent? Personally I would have liked to see him have an option. A 12 match ban or 6 matches playing in a Hannibal Lecter mask.
“I just don’t think there’s any place for that type of thing. Wherever I go I get asked about Rugby League players but I can’t ever remember where a top level Rugby League player bit another, I just can’t. When you look at that particular player it’s happened before, so he obviously either feels it’s something he needs to do or can do. I’m just glad we don’t come across that on the field and that our players have more about them.”
To support the ‘Six Book Challenge’ which I am honoured to be associated with, trying to encourage post 16s and adults to get back into reading, I wanted to know if there were any books Steve might have read recently himself.
“The last book I read was John Kear’s ‘Coaching is Chaos’, I enjoyed that and I have just bought Brian Noble’s book about building winning teams. I like sporting biographies. Talking about your work with the Six Book Challenge, I did something similar a couple of years back when I spent a fair bit of time at a school in Runcorn. It was an initiative to get the younger boys back into reading books and was something I enjoyed helping with.
Visit http://readingagency.org.uk for more info on the Six Book Challenge
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