Inside the match officials training camp

Rugby League World editor Alex Davis took a trip to the Lake District in January, right in the middle of Storm Brendan, to see how our whistle-blowers are put through their paces on a pre-season team-building exercise for referees.

Pre-season is ending. All the teams have worked hard to get themselves into shape, instil team values and build skill levels ready for the new season in a new decade.

The refereeing group are no different.

While many clubs enjoyed the delights of Alicante and other warm-weather destinations to continue their preparation, Steve Ganson and the rest of the refereeing coaching staff did something very different.

With the bulk of the fitness work already done, the referees headed up to Coniston in the Lake District for a team building event – and I couldn’t resist butting in and having a look.

“We’re taking them out of their comfort zone, so you find people out,” coach Phil Bentham, one of four under Ganson, explains.

“We get to identify people that are looking pretty good and have a good attitude. There might be somebody we’re looking at as a potential full-time referee and then we also see traits in people that we need to develop within them.”

With ten full-time referees in the system heading into the new season and a whole host of part-time staff, a key part of the retreat is to integrate the two groups so come match-day when both full-time and part-time referees are required, everyone feels comfortable working with each other as Chris Kendall, 2019’s Grand Final referee describes.

“This is the opportunity, especially for the full-time group, to get to know the part-time group who you’ll be working with week to week on a personal level rather than a professional level.

“We’re getting used to each other and while we’re here, when we get put into our mini-groups, you’re working with different people and you’re all wanting to get to an end goal. That’s very much how it is on the field. You want to get to an end goal of the game going as well as it possibly can.”

Bentham agrees that this trip is all about integrating the two groups.

“What we don’t want is an ‘us and them’ feel to it. The part-time staff have got to feel like they’re part of the team. We don’t want groups of people turning up for games as if the full-time referees are working together and the others are just spare parts.”

The referees had an action-packed and challenging itinerary for the week. Storm Brendan meant plans were fluid but the group undertook orienteering in the driving wind and rain, working together in large boats to retrieve clues around a lake, sailing, hiking up to and staying at the top of a mountain in a hut whilst also brushing up on refereeing policy and taking in a talk from a former professional football referee too.

I had the privilege of tailing the group on the opening day as they tackled the orienteering. Conditions weren’t great but kitted out, the group had 48 beer tokens to find at 20 different points in the forest. Experienced referees Ben Thaler and Robert Hicks took the lead on deciding how to split up the group after a couple had shot off in search of the tokens.

Mud, even more wind and rain and a graceful tumble from myself, awarded a score of seven by Kendall, followed. After a couple of hours all but one of the tokens had been found surely leading to a great night somewhere down the line. Sadly not for me, as I had to drive home later the same day.

This was the glamorous part of pre-season for the group. The full-time refs have been subjected to a rigorous programme, not unlike the players who will take to the pitch with them in February, by former Leeds Rhinos player Ian Kirke.

A typical week for Kendall in pre-season involves four gym sessions at Kirke’s gym in Headingley, several office sessions discussing policy and two field sessions.

The field sessions include conditioning and skill sessions resulting in the refs being tested on their knowledge of policy and other aspects of refereeing under fatigue to replicate a game situation.

Meanwhile, Kirke has been tasked with not only improving a referee’s general fitness but their overall strength and even their aesthetic look.

“Ian has his own style,” Bentham adds. “He’s very quietly spoken but he gets work done by the lads. He’s working on different things with them. Not just running fitness but all over body fitness.

“What he wants is an overall strength and an overall body image so aesthetically they look better. There’s no doubt they can run. We’re trying to improve running styles, agility, speed off the mark and all the things that will help them during the game rather than just being a fit person.”

Kendall is sure that in his time working with the referees, Kirke has been surprised at the level of fitness of his team.

“Kirky’s probably said it himself that he was very surprised, when he transitioned into working for us, how fit we were. He was doing sessions with us that he’d done with Leeds in previous years and he was quite shocked at the results he was getting back.

“It’s a very hard-working group and it’s a very fit group. One thing that we can’t be faulted on is how we train as a group and the amount of stuff we do put in. It’s a strong group and we do get round each other when needs be to get us through different sessions and different things.

“Kirky transitioned us into more weights stuff and more of how we look and how we look travelling. We’ve done a lot of work on sprinting. In the past, we’ve been guilty of doing long endurance stuff but it’s now more short burst stuff.”

Kendall’s rise through the ranks has been meteoric. Only a few years into his career as a full-time referee, he officiated at Wembley in the 1895 Cup Final, at Old Trafford in the Grand Final and travelled to the Southern Hemisphere to officiate in international Test matches in 2019. But what has inspired such progress? Kendall himself puts it down to experience and working hard.

“You need a really strong base to go out and referee major Finals and major games. Whilst in 2018, I was disappointed not to be refereeing the Grand Final, when I look back now, with time to reflect, I know I wasn’t ready to referee that game. I didn’t have a strong enough base and didn’t have those experiences.

“So, I knew in that off-season, I had to bridge the gap in other ways. It was a light bulb moment. Heading into 2019, I worked myself into the ground. I wanted to be the hardest worker in the room. That included training and matches, reviewing, learning. I wanted to be the workhouse of the full-time group.

“You can generally get through Super League matches working hard. To take that next step, refereeing Grand Finals and international Test matches, it takes that little extra ten percent. You have to have the bit between your teeth and from day one-off pre-season, set yourself a target and work hard to nail it.”

Bentham agrees with Kendall but acknowledges there is more to Kendall’s game than fitness and work ethic: “He’s an ex-player so he came from Huddersfield academy into refereeing. He is very fit. We want the lads to aspire to that level. He’ll probably win most training sessions closely followed by a couple of others.

“But the large part of the job is whether you can deal with it mentally. Are you a good communicator on the pitch? If he didn’t have those then his fitness wouldn’t apply. His fitness is a plus and aesthetically looking right is a plus. These are things we’re trying to improve in each and every one but ultimately it’s his refereeing, his communication and understanding of policy.”

But if a referee is struggling with his form, getting decisions wrong and perhaps even impacting a result, they will be held accountable. Both salaries and appointments are all based around a referee’s performance.

After a game, the full-time referees are expected to rewatch their game in detail before setting out for work the following day.
“I will referee on a Sunday afternoon for example,” says Kendall.

“I get home from Wakefield or Castleford or wherever it is at 6pm. I then have a review process to get through before I set off for work at 7am the next morning. The review takes between four and four and a half hours. I’m going through it in magnifying detail. Looking at movement, positioning and decision making, everything I can about the performance. Ultimately, you’re looking at decisions and decision making to see if you’re right. But if you do get decisions wrong, what led to that?

“You might be travelling home from a match and be thinking ‘I know that decision was a big decision and I hope it was right.’ You get home, you turn your laptop on and that’s the first thing you do, you stick your USB in, and you check it.

“When it’s not right, then that’s hard to take. From then, it’s about honesty, looking at it, breaking it down and working out why I made the wrong decision. Is it effort? Is it work rate? Or I’ve got there, and I’ve seen it wrong which sometimes it is and there’s no answer to it.

“The ones I find hard are the errors that are down to process. Something that we’ve broken down as a team or a mistake through a lack of effort. If I’d have worked harder off the line, I could have been in a better position to get the decision right. If I’d have worked harder away from the scrum, I might have seen the ball steal at the back of the ruck.

“We’re held to a very high account in the office. Gans (Steve Ganson) drives very high standards. If standards or decision making isn’t where it needs to be then we know about it and stuff gets put into place whether that’s in training or an extra video session to learn and improve as a group. We’re only as strong as our weakest member. If we’ve had five games that have gone well and one that hasn’t, how are we going to make sure that that referee improves for the next week?”